Redstart: An Ecological Poetics


The damage humans have perpetrated on our environment has certainly affected a poet’s means and material. But can poetry be ecological? Can it display or be invested with values that acknowledge the economy of interrelationship between the human and the nonhuman realms? Aside from issues of theme and reference, how might syntax, line break, or the shape of the poem on the page express an ecological ethics?


To answer these questions, poets Forrest Gander and John Kinsella ...

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The damage humans have perpetrated on our environment has certainly affected a poet’s means and material. But can poetry be ecological? Can it display or be invested with values that acknowledge the economy of interrelationship between the human and the nonhuman realms? Aside from issues of theme and reference, how might syntax, line break, or the shape of the poem on the page express an ecological ethics?


To answer these questions, poets Forrest Gander and John Kinsella offer an experiment, a collaborative volume of prose and poetry that investigates—both thematically and formally—the relationship between nature and culture, language and perception. They ask whether, in an age of globalization, industrialization, and rapid human population growth, an ethnocentric view of human beings as a species independent from others underpins our exploitation of natural resources. Does the disease of Western subjectivity constitute an element of the aesthetics that undermine poetic resistance to the killing of the land? Why does “the land” have to give something back to the writer?


This innovative volume speaks to all people wanting to understand how artistic and critical endeavors can enrich, rather than impoverish, the imperiled world around us.  

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781609381196
  • Publisher: University of Iowa Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2012
  • Series: Contemp North American Poetry Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 84
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.10 (d)

Meet the Author

The author of numerous books of poetry including Core Samples from the World, Eye against Eye, and Science & Steepleflower, novels (As a Friend), and essays (A Faithful Existence), Forrest Gander is the Adele Kellenberg Seaver Professor of Literary Arts and Comparative Literature at Brown University. A United States Artists Rockefeller Fellow and 2011 recipient of the Witter Bynner fellowship from the Library of Congress, he has also won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim, Whiting, and Howard Foundations. John Kinsella is the author of more than thirty books and has won many prizes, including the Grace Leven Poetry Prize, the John Bray Award for Poetry from the Adelaide Festival, the Age Poetry Book of the Year Award, and the Western Australian Premier's Book Award for Poetry. He has also published novels, collections of stories, verse plays, criticism, and autobiography. He is a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia and also 2011/2012 Judith E. Wilson Poetry Fellow at Cambridge University, where he is also a Fellow of Churchill College. 

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An Ecological Poetics


Copyright © 2012 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60938-119-6

Chapter One

The Future of the Past


The earth under our feet—We are not asked to begin nowhere. —GEORGE OPPEN

Better than ever able to trawl through proliferating voices and dialects, we're still aware that the language practices commandeering world history are increasingly standardized, utilitarian, and transcriptional. If we're experts at navigating sound bites, we're prey to clichés and ready-made phrases. With text-messaging, grammar- and spell-check programs, we're offered, in the middle of making a word or sentence, a range of choices for completing it. Those choices are programmed to the most likely conventions. The full range is shoehorned into high-probability solutions. The shortcuts are useful of course, and god knows I can use the spelling help, but they nevertheless nudge us toward predetermined expressions that circumscribe thinking and condition perception.

As globalization draws us together and industrialization and human population pressures take their toll on natural habitats, as species of plants and animals flicker and are snuffed from the earth, it may be worthwhile to ask whether an ethnocentric view of human beings as a species independent from others underpins our exploitation of natural resources and sets into motion dire consequences.

What we've perpetrated on our environment has certainly affected a poet's means and material. But can poetry be ecological? Can it display or be invested with values that acknowledge the economy of interrelationship between human and nonhuman realms? Aside from issues of theme and reference, how might syntax, line break, or the shape of the poem on the page express an ecological ethics? If our perceptual experience is mostly palimpsestic or endlessly juxtaposed and fragmented; if events rarely have discreet beginnings or endings but only layers, duration, and transitions; if natural processes are already altered by and responsive to human observation, how does poetry register the complex interdependency that draws us into a dialogue with the world?

There are, of course, long traditions of the pastoral, poetry centered on nature or landscape, in both Eastern and Western language literature. I, myself, am less interested in "nature poetry"—where nature features as theme—than in poetry that investigates—both thematically and formally—the relationship between nature and culture, language and perception.

I wouldn't propose any particular aesthetic synthesis that embodies the union of linguistic meaning and phenomenal reality. Compost seems to me no more a model of nature than geometrical symmetry (the housefly's eye) or strict mathematical progression (the Fibonacci number sequence). It depends upon how we want to metaphorize nature (which we can't, in any case, ever extricate ourselves from: "Nature is on the inside," says Cézanne to Gasquet). Nor can any definition of the ecological be authoritative. A strict Petrarchan sonnet might as readily suggest to a reader the rigid imposition of authorial control as the humbling sublimation of a writer's choices to a larger (because conventional) expressive pattern.

Just now, the United States and China are locked in a tug of war to determine which country can spew more carbon. For both, natural resources are snorted up for immediate highs. Perhaps these facts place particular responsibilities on the poets of both countries. Maybe the development of environmental literacy, by which I mean a capacity for reading connections between the environment and its inhabitants, can be promoted by poetic literacy; maybe poetic literacy will be deepened through environmental literacy.

Poetry doesn't simply supplement the rational intellect but provides inherent and sometimes incommensurable forms of insight. Because its meanings are neither quantitative nor verifiable, poetry may offer different, subtler, and more complex expressions than the language of information and commerce. An ecological poetry might even ...

Chapter Two

The Carboniferous and Ecopoetics


In one of the beginnings, below the fluff- and leaf-encrusted surface of a wide, shallow body of water, microscopic spores swirl with bat-winged algae. A cloudy soup of exertions and excretions, the sea drizzles its grit into rich mud.

Trilobites are dying off. (Miles Davis could have been quoting nature when he said, "I listen to what I can leave out.") Brachiopods, mollusks, and corals cluster in wide, shallow seas riven by sharks. Thick fish with lungs and lobes are giving way to a new species, the lung reconfigured as a swim bladder. Like surreal, underwater candelabra, crinoids effloresce; on long branching stems they stretch up toward the waves, each arm filtering small animals and plants through the calyx where a mouth is hidden.

Aquatic insects begin leaping from the water to escape fish. In some, the gill plates take on the quality of wings. (Donde una puerta se cierra, otra se abre, Cervantes writes: where one door closes, another opens.) The Carboniferous gives rise to six-winged insects. They need compound eyes for navigation. There are bugs that would look ordinary to us, and there are giants, huge mayflies and predatory dragonflies with thirty-inch wingspans. They hover over bouquet-size spiders and a sort of millipede that grows five feet long.

Because there are no flowers, the insects are plant suckers and spore feeders; they eat seeds still unprotected by fruit, and they eat each other. They live in burrow holes and on the forest floor, and they colonize tree crowns. They jump, crawl, and soar into and out of the canopy.

Below, in the umbratile interval between one step and another, a tetrapod resembling a large newt freezes and blinks into the sound of the world, the chirp and whirr of insects and the high frequency mutter of its own species. Fronds brush fronds in a light breeze. (And what, eons later, does the Kreutzer Sonata, which Tolstoy will deem dangerous for its capacity to arouse erotic feelings, what does that music have over this sound?) The animal blinks again, its hydraulic limbs holding it above smudged tracks that mark where others of its kind mated, their mouths popping, cheek muscles bulging. Five tumescent digits on each foot channel ground vibrations into neural impulses. It takes stock and goes on. ("I am still alive then. That may come in useful," Beckett's Molloy quips.)

The air is rich with the smell of chlorophyll; oxygen levels are spiked. There are no flowers, no pollens, no vivid plant colors. There are no grasses, but vegetation is beginning to climb slopes, reducing runoff and erosion. The first mosses have appeared.

Conifers and tree ferns fifty feet high tower over swamps of horsetails. Because temperature and humidity hold steady, the trees rise so quickly they lack clear growth rings. Ferns luxuriate across wetlands: dragonfly seed ferns, rhizomatic ferns, ferns spoked like the dorsal fin of a swordfish, each loosing into the air millions of spores coated with oil and chlorophyll. Every plant on earth releasing oxygen, but taking carbon with it to its grave.

In the Carboniferous, the graves are considerable. At the end of their life cycles, plants topple into the water and mud and loam. They accumulate so quickly, they don't have time to decay. Branches, seeds, leaves, and debris fall into pools already thick with aquatic plants and algal blooms. The buried mass goes brown and peaty under an ever-increasing load.

Beneath hundreds of thousands of meters of overlying rot, the peat beds contract like a frog's iris into thin, horizontal lines. Water, oxygen, and hydrogen are pressed out. The organics harden into lignite. While the swampy basin continues to subside, heat and intensifying pressure metamorphose the lignite into soft coal. (And "the darkness is white, but not / white like the white that existed / when ... trees existed," writes Inger Christensen.) Spheroidal masses of minerals like calcite and fool's gold bind and clot in the seams.

(The Romans pass along a word, conticinium, for the nighttime hour when the world goes quiet. The Carboniferous collapses into a night that goes quiet for 300 million years. When we pick up a piece of coal, it is the fossil residue of photosynthesis, a condensation of Paleozoic sunlight that we hold in our hands.)

As soon as humans enter the picture, the story speeds up. Four thousand years ago, the Welch ignite funeral pyres with coal. In 1673, two Frenchmen document coal beds in Illinois. But not until the nineteenth-century industrial revolution is coal assiduously mined. Shafts are drilled into coal seams; rooms, pillared with timber, are excavated. In dusty lamplight, miners break down the coal-face with a hand auger, a pickax, and blasting powder. In every cubic meter of air they breathe, four to eight billion dust particles circulate. Once a day, the fire boss comes through with a safety light and checks for gas.

From before the Civil War to the mid-twentieth century, men separate coal from shale and rock binder, and they shovel the coal into loading cars by hand. Billions of tons are heaved and cleared from mines by human muscle. Chinese workers arrive in the U.S. and help lay rails for coal-fired locomotives. Jimmie Rodgers records "The Singing Brakeman."

At full throttle, technologies advance: undercutting machines, roof bolting, ventilation, mechanized loading, conveyor systems, strip mining, and then, about three decades ago, mountaintop removal mining. In West Virginia alone, more than 350,000 acres of forested mountains are lopped off, and 1,200 miles of streams are buried. The overburden or leftover rock fills adjacent valleys. One of the byproducts of excavation is slurry, a pool of chemical waste and toxic metals. Postexcavation by-products like ash and poisonous gases are released in the next phase: the burning of coal in power plants.

Because most coal contains pyrite (ferrous sulfide), combustion releases sulfur gas. Sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, and mercury, all toxic, plume into the air. And so, of course, does carbon dioxide. Isotopic fingerprinting of carbon in the atmosphere links it directly to the burning of fossil fuels. Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel, producing twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas. CO2 in the air, its density increasing 200 times faster than ever before, captures reflected heat and holds it to the face of the planet like a pillow. Meanwhile, some of the sulfur dioxide precipitates out of the skies as acid rain; the mercury finds its way to the ocean.

By the end of the twenty-first century, a mere three hundred years after coal was first intensively mined, a vast amount of the carbon that accumulated underground for over three hundred million years will have been released into the atmosphere. The relation between those two sets of numbers, three hundred and three hundred million, represents six orders of magnitude.

In the United States, power consumption from coal will probably rise almost 2 percent per year through 2030, faster than energy consumption from petroleum and natural gas combined. There are over 400 coal-fired plants in the United States and at least 114 more plants under construction. In China, where more than 6,000 men died in mines in 2004, where coal seams in the north hiss in unstoppable fires started by small-scale mining operators, and where the deserts are yawning wider at an alarming rate, coal is powering unprecedented industrialization. Some scientists estimate that coal will provide half the world's energy by the year 2100. And a hundred years after that, all the exploitable reserves of coal in the earth with be exhausted.

* * *

A poem, even excavated from its context and the time of its writing, is a curiously renewable form of energy. It's hard to be sure whether it is from the future or the past that the poet Henry Vaughan writes: "They are all gone into the world of light! / And I alone sit ling'ring here."



The term ecopoetics has taken on a wide range of connotations. Among them: a variable set of technical and conceptual strategies for writing during a time of ecological crisis. These strategies (which look a lot like innovative poetic strategies championed for the last hundred years) often make claims to initiating

1. a dispersal of ego-centered agency;

2. a stance of self-reflexivity (so that, for instance, it is said that the poem originates not within the self but within the landscape to which it is given back);

3. a rejection, as Australian poet Stuart Cooke writes,1 of any attempt to "gather the world into some kind of unity and permanence" in favor of an "encounter" with the world marked by "entropic fluctuations" (ecopoetic texts are sometimes described as "open texts");

4. a rigorous attention to patterning;

5. a reorientation of objectivity toward intersubjectivity.

To bolster this last intention, ecopoetics has been linked to studies in neurology. While the attempt to reinterpret objectivity as intersubjectivity goes back at least to the nineteenth century, to Franz Brentano and Edmund Husserl, the contemporary neurologist Antonio Damasio helps provide a science for it with research that suggests that "consciousness consists of constructing knowledge about two facts: that the organism is involved in relating to some object and that the object in the relation is causing a change in the organism."

The world, Damasio implies, is actively involved in our perception of it. The phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty made the point earlier when he suggested that the tree offers itself to our vision. In most ecophilosophies, traditional Western assumptions about the distinction between the controlling subject and serviceable object are reassessed. The ego-logical is redrafted as the eco-logical.

So eco-logic (as Félix Guattari claims in The Three Ecologies) is not focused on binaries; it isn't dialectical. Instead, it means to question "the whole of subjectivity" and rethink the self as "a collective singularity." As the poet/philosopher Richard Deming puts it, "To suggest there is a subjectivity to which 'self ' refers is not necessarily to hold that, as such, an 'I' must be a continuity."

It isn't a radically new idea to consider that the I is multiple (since Nietzsche and Emily Dickinson both say as much) or that the self is interconnected with other things and beings (as animists believe and as Edmund Husserl and Brenda Hillman propose). But the founder of deep ecology, Arne Naess, extends the idea into his call for a worldwide and unimpeded "self-realization" for all subjects, human and nonhuman.

That's a call that leaves me on the porch smoking with Bobby Bland, "two steps from the blues." Because that call is awfully hard to make. And maybe, in any case, we should be looking to make a different kind of call.

Félix Guattari prods us to learn to see ourselves as a collective singularity, to "construct and in a permanent way re-construct this collectivity in a multivalent liberation project. Not in reference to a directing ideology, but within the articulations of the Real."

Some of the questions we might ask: Who becomes responsible for separating the Real from ideology? Does that attempt lead us back to a notion of prelinguistic, primordial reality unstructured by language? Is there a way to perceive the Real transparently, without depending on deeply problematic translations of the world into word? Is there any foundational reality apart from our constitutive and perspectival translation of it?

Many of the descriptions of the relation between poetry and ecology are metaphorical, and the metaphors have been thoroughly mixed. A poem expressing a concern for ecology might be structured as compost, it might be developed rhizomatically, it might be described as a nest, a collectivity. Its structure might be cyclical, indeterminate, or strictly patterned. The formal possibilities are as infinite as ever since there isn't any formal structure for representing ecology or nature. And writing is a constructed system.

Looking back for a moment at deep ecologist Arne Naess's imagination of "self-realization" for all subjects, human and nonhuman, we are faced with another nagging question: how can our perception of nonhuman indications of "self-realization" be unimpeded by our interpretations? While it's true that many cultures—the Pirahã, the Navajo, Australian aborigines—may experience relatively more transparent relations with "the spirit world," there are still inherent translation problems.

And who determines, and by what criteria, that one poem "issues from the land" while another poem "issues from the self "? Who validates certain poetic techniques, approaches, forms as a priori ecologically ethical or unethical (as William Carlos Williams once called the sonnet a "fascist form")?

It's interesting to consider classical Chinese poetry, which—with its absence of personal pronouns, simultaneous but nonhierarchical meanings, indeterminate term relations, and linkages between the natural world and the world of human emotion, perception, and experience—satisfies many ecopoetical aims. Yet the Chinese have a long pervasive history of what the Western world calls animal abuse and environmental degradation, not to mention a deeply hierarchical social structure and oppressive political regimes.

Maybe there is no reason to expect that values purportedly connected to poetic form encourage behaviors structured by those values. Which is to say, maybe poetry makes nothing happen.

In linguistic circles, the Wittgensteinian argument that "the limits of my language mean the limits of my world" is still debated, often couched in attacks on—or variations of—the Sapir-Whorf theory (which proposes that the particularities of a language influence the thought of its speakers). Most ecopoetics are linked to some sense of political urgency and to the belief that language is centrally involved in both thinking and culture, a position calling into question anyone's claim to absolute certitude. It's been suggested that ecopoetries, by offering revised, less dogmatically binary perspectives of interaction between human and nonhuman realms, suggest ways of being in the world that might lead to less exploitative and destructive histories.

Two recent studies interest me and, although they aren't dog-in-the-sun proofs, they register support for the argument that language, perception, and conception are irrevocably interconnected. The first is the highly publicized field work of Daniel Everett, who reported, in "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã" and in two subsequent books, on a Brazilian-Amazonian tribe for whom linguistic communication is restricted to "the immediate experience of the interlocutors." Their language doesn't have a perfect tense. It doesn't allow for the possibility of embedding, putting one phrase or sentence inside another. They have no numbers, no concept of counting more than one, two, and many, no color terms, no abstractions, no myths, and no sense of history going back more than one or two generations. Despite one hundred years of contact with Portuguese-speaking Brazilians, they are monolingual. Because their language does not allow for expressing experience beyond the experience of the speakers, they don't say, when someone in a canoe disappears around the bend of a river, "He is gone from sight"; they say, "He is gone" (from experience).


Excerpted from Redstart by FORREST GANDER JOHN KINSELLA Copyright © 2012 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Prefatory Note vii

The Future of the Past 1

The Carboniferous and Ecopoetics 5

Codex for a Protest 19

A Note on Ecopoetics 37

Redstart 39

The Movements of Yellow-Rumped Thornbills: Twittering Machines 65

A Note on the Collaborative Process 79

Acknowledgments 83

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