- Ecopoetics: The Language of Nature, The Nature of Language by Scott Knickerbocker
Scott Knickerbocker’s Ecopoetics seeks to define its titular term by reading a handful of American poets as ecopoets. Ecopoetics produces a “sensuous poesis,” what Knickerbocker elaborates as “the process of rematerializing language specifically as a response to nonhuman nature” (2). Four chapters look in turn at Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, and Sylvia Plath in a search for evidence of an ecopoetic practice; a concluding chapter deals in similar fashion with the contemporary poets Marilyn Nelson, Susan Howe, and John Witte. Knickerbocker argues in his introduction that “[e]cological poetry posits a relationship between aesthetics and ethics” (3), and he indeed produces some very attentive close readings, but he avoids discussing the larger issues raised by the opposition of / interplay between the ethical and the aesthetic spheres. While ecocriticism currently wrestles with the masculinist nature of its agenda, and while it raises a number of questions about how nature or “the natural” is defined (a question with particular relevance for queer theory scholars), Knickerbocker follows a narrower line of inquiry into how his chosen poets acknowledge and write the divide between the word and the world. Ecopoetics establishes its foothold in this expanding field through well-managed introductory work on Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Indeed, the readings here of Dickinson’s “A Bird, came down the Walk—” and Hopkins’s “The Windhover” are some of the strongest parts of the book. By its close, however, one wonders why Dickinson in particular was not the subject of a full chapter; this is just one of a series of particular reservations.
Ecopoetics is somewhat disjointed, a problem that arises largely because the book is arranged into separate chapters that work in parallel but not in sequence with each other. The book’s chiasmatic subtitle, The Language of Nature, The Nature of Language, promises a fuller [End Page 161] unpacking of the possible theoretical and critical fields of both of its main terms, but the book as a whole backs away from any extensive engagement with the philosophical possibilities of language, in poetry or otherwise. This reticence is surprising given the first chapter’s analysis of a handful of Stevens’s poems. While Knickerbocker does not attempt to move his readings into fields beyond the limit of ecopoetics as he defines it, he would have benefited from some mention of the critical studies of Stevens that have grappled with the philosophical bearing of his work; more critical background would have helped to underpin what are otherwise merely engaged, close readings of familiar Stevens poems. “The Snow Man,” “Autumn Refrain,” “Anecdote of the Jar,” and “The Auroras of Autumn” are all followed carefully for what they may mean and mined for their potential deployment of “sensuous poesis,” but the argument never develops its own, extended wings as it plots a graph of Stevens as “eco-aesthete” (21). Instead, Knickerbocker makes broad, generalized, and unsubstantiated claims in relation to Stevens that require much fuller discussion and support if they are to hold critical water.
At regular intervals, phrases are deployed blindly. For example, Knickerbocker makes the following claim: “‘Autumn Refrain,’ however, like all of Stevens’s poems, does not suggest a simple flight of fancy” (35). Recurrent phrases like “as most of his poems demonstrate” or “[i]n many of Stevens’s poems” (41) overstate points that are made about one short Stevens poem. Indeed, the poems selected, with the exception of “Anecdote of the Jar” (itself a self-consciously jarring episode in man’s relationship with nature), concentrate on Stevens’ autumn and winter landscapes in his work. The 1947 collection Transport to Summer apparently does not merit a mention, nor is there any extended analysis of Stevens’s poems in which he writes about either spring or summer. These seasons are also central to his poetry, and they are detailed with alternative vocabularies and produce differing philosophies from those of his autumn and winter poems. The same quotation from “Variations on...