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B o o k R e v i e w s Sustainable Poetry: Four American Ecopoets. By Leonard M. Scigaj. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999. 336 pages, $34.95. Reviewed by John P. O’Grady Allegheny College Here is an unusual book of literary criticism. It urges readers to distinguish between two kinds of poetry in order to set the stage for an epic intellectual and aesthetic battle. On the one side, we have “ecopoetry,” a form that Leonard Scigaj believes sustains the environment. Such poetry, according to the dust jacket, is characterized by its insistence that “the interests of humans be balanced with the needs of nature.” Scigaj’s ecopoets are A. R. Ammons, Wendell Berry, W. S. Merwin, and Gary Snyder. These are the good guys. On the other side is “unsustainable poetry,” or, as Scigaj likes to call it, “establish' ment poetry.” This form ofverse “systematically naturalizes nature into reliably benign, National Park landscapes and regularly sanitizes the text by systemat­ ically editing out specific social and economic concerns, while restricting interest to aesthetics and language theory” (79). Representative figures in this camp are Jorie Graham and Robert Hass. Call them the bad guys. Sustainable Poetry then reads like an ecocritical psychomachia. Sort of. As much as a brawling Roberta Lavadour. THE ART OF ANGLING. 1999. Photograph of “Artist’s Book.” 5" x 6". Courtesy of the artist. The cover is composed of hand­ made paper and the book contains an extended passage from Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler (1678). B o o k R e v ie w s 3 0 5 knock-down, drag-out between the forces of good and evil can drive the plot in medieval allegories and Hollywood movies, it is a risky strategy for literary criticism, especially when Robert Hass (or his writing) is cast as a villain. Don’t get me wrong; there is much to admire about Sustainable Poetry, not the least of which are its author’s erudition and passion for his subject. This book makes a valiant attempt to press further into the philosophical territory opened up by David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous (1996). Scigaj has ren­ dered ecocriticism a noble service by immersing himself in the philosophy of phenomenology to see what it might offer environmental literary studies. After all, the dirty little secret is that ecocriticism, since its inception, has been want­ ing a sound philosophical base from which it might offer a genuine critique rather than merely pan through literary texts for ideological gold. The first two chapters of Sustainable Poetry are a well-researched, albeit densely written, endeavor to establish a philosophically informed ecocriticism. Unfortunately, when Scigaj resorts to dubious coinages such as “référance”— a cognitive process he says “turns the reader’s gaze toward an apprehension of the cyclic processes of wild nature after a self-reflexive recognition of the limits (the sous rature) of language”— to explain how ecopoetry works, I for one am at a loss to gauge the success of his project (38). I need a field guide so I can identify this “référance” when I encounter it in a poem, if not out there in nature itself; this book does not provide it. And when I read a sentence like “For ecopoets language is an instrument that the poet continually refurbishes to articulate his originary experience in nature,” I begin to wonder if anything is being said at all (29). The analyses that follow— contained in long chapters devoted to the work of each of the four ecopoets— add little to the theorizing that precedes them. Scigaj’s prose, despite his effort to read these authors through the freshground lens of “sustainability,” only darkens and obscures what others agree is some of the clearest and most accessible poetry written by Americans in the last fifty years. Ezra Pound once quipped that poetry ought to be at least as well written as prose; the same could be said of literary criticism. If, however, the reader already has a fondness for any of these ecopoets, some delight is to be had in revisiting their words through Scigaj’s book, as when...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 304-306
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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