- Illuminating the Anthropocene: Ecopoetic Explorers at the Edge of the Naturecultures Abyss
Though ecocritical responses to canonical figures like William Shakespeare and the British Romantics appeared early in the history of ecocriticism, ecocritical attention to contemporary North American poetry was slower to emerge. Thankfully, as the texts considered here amply demonstrate, a robust ecocritical discussion has now developed, rooted in the last two decades of the twentieth century, and is continuing into the twenty-first century. Lynn Keller, Sarah Nolan, and the scholars whose work is anthologized by Angela Hume and Gillian Osborne, all testify to the vibrancy of current ecocritical discourse, as the field adjusts both to concerns associated with what Keller terms the “self-conscious Anthropocene” and to a significant body of poetry that these concerns have spurred and sustained (1).
In their monumental Ecopoetry Anthology (2013), Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street posit three major categories of poetry addressing environmental content and themes; two of these, “nature poetry” and “environmental poetry,” differing primarily in the latter’s more activist stance, share common roots in the nineteenth-century lyric. The third category, “ecological poetry,” reflects experimental verse’s engagement with questions of form. Descending from nineteenth-century Romanticism on both sides of the Atlantic, the lyric tradition combines mimetic representation of natural features with a phenomenological correspondence linking the natural world spiritually and psychologically with the first-person narrator. Even the rhetorical, ostensibly antiromantic lyrics Robinson Jeffers [End Page 325] calls, in his preface to The Double Axe (1948), Inhumanist, generally follow suit in matters of form, content, and the relationship between them.
The Romantic heritage animates the work of twentieth-century nature poets such as Theodore Roethke and Mary Oliver. Environmental poetry, though more political and topical, shares enough common ground with nature poetry that many figures—Wendell Berry, for example—could be considered examples of both. This neo-Romantic tradition has provided an inspiring, much-loved body of work. Yet, its critics point out, the connection between human and nature these lyrics depend upon can devolve in practice into a speaker/object relationship in which an active human principle achieves realization through probing a dependent, deferential nature. A standard Romantic trope places the human figure in the natural setting to complete the landscape; the natural world, therefore, needs human presence to give it meaning. As Ralph Waldo Emerson says in “Nature,” “the world exists for you. For you is the phenomenon perfect” (55). The relationship seems destructively gendered for our time as well and has racial implications calling to mind ambitious Age-of-Empire European adventurers exploiting lands and peoples they viewed as undeveloped and uncivilized. But perhaps the most problematic limitation lies in the narrator’s unselfconscious separateness. The assumed autonomy of the human speaker seems increasingly unsupportable in the developing Anthropocene, in which nonhuman and human are inextricably entangled, leading Bill McKibben, in his 1989 book about climate change, to lament “the end of nature” as an entity distinct from the human.
It is not surprising that, following a course marked out by pioneering figures, particularly John Elder, Leonard Scigaj, and J. Scott Bryson, ecocritical considerations of North American poetry initially explored this Romantic and post-Romantic lyric tradition. The corresponding critique of American nonfiction prose, after all, had long focused attention on writers like Emerson and, especially, Henry David Thoreau, with an acknowledged canon including such familiar figures as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and Edward Abbey following in their wake. Like their prose counterparts, nature and environmental poets adopt, as Berry might have it, particular places, systems, and creatures as beloved subjects; the lyric’s capacity for careful, attentive delineation is well-suited to honor and defend those subjects. Moreover, the concerns central to experimental verse seemed far removed from those of nature and environmental writers and scholars. Critics accustomed to think of nature as primarily wild or rural and...