Ecopoetics and the Radical Lyric

The project of engaging with “ecopoetics” always resonates with that part of myself that wants art to be civil, to be community-minded, to matter beyond itself. At the same time, it alarms that part of myself that wants to make art — a process that can be messy, selfish, dangerous, a process I want to keep free from prescription. So I approach the issue of ecopoetics in a state of ambivalence, and with a certain wariness. What is ecopoetics and what are the formal elements of its practice? These are questions under considerable debate. In her introduction to the 2007 ecopoetics issue of How2, U.K. poet and professor Harriet Tarlo raises the possibility that ecopoetics may be “in danger of becoming the object of a custody battle between traditionalists who may argue that referential, even polemical, poetic language is central to ecopoetics and innovative poets who may argue that ‘poetics’ itself implies an emphasis on form and the kind of critical/creative cutting edge poetry that the modernist tradition is so distinguished by.” That possibility certainly arose at the 2006 National Ecopoetics Symposium I attended at Brandon University, where the poets were consciously divided into two schools: practitioners of “traditional” lyric poetry and practitioners of “innovative” experimental works. The lyric mode, some say, maintains the status quo, supporting traditional notions of a stable, discrete self and the possibility of stable meaning, while the innovative poets, through their radical linguistic play with syntax and semantics, subvert those naïve notions. Now, as a reader, I’m a fan of writing that comes out of both these camps, and as an intellectual kibitzer, I like to blur the distinctions between them. But as a writer, I know exactly which side of the divide I’m on. I love to work with the lyric poem, a genre that’s been accused over the past century of being irresponsible, apolitical, sentimental, and irrelevant — and frankly I had, of late, grown weary of defending it. But current debates about ecopoetics are opening new opportunities to revisit the political value of the lyric mode.

“Ecopoetics” names a concern with ecology and with poetry, and my approach to both has always been deeply connected to issues of peace and violence. Certainly the greatest challenge to our global environment at present is war. In most cases it’s war that starves children, poisons the air and soil and water, destroys forests and wildlife, and prevents humanitarian aid and preservation work. As the ironic understatement of those 1970s posters reminded us, “war is unhealthy for children and other living things.” And in a vicious modern twist, much of the war on the planet today is waged over the very resources — oil and gasoline — that we’re using to destroy ourselves. It’s a mad race among the kings of the world as they maim and murder each other’s people to see who can pollute the place fastest. So war and ecology are intertwined.