The eco-poetry that shaped me

Blog / Kate Wilkinson

Tim Cresswell explains why he loves eco-poetry and shares the poets who have inspired him, from Don McKay and Sarah de Leeuw to Juliana Spahr and John Clare.

Being long-listed for the Laurel Prize for Poetry was both a pleasant surprise and humbling. So many of the poets listed are poets whose work has inspired me, and one, Anja Konig, is a poet I have shared poems with for over a decade. I am sure that others will become bookshelf companions. I recall when Simon Armitage announced a prize for nature and eco-poetry and thinking how appropriate that was for this particular moment – a time where our relationship to the natural world is at, or close to, all kinds of tipping points. Of course, the listing has also led me to consider my own work as nature poetry or eco-poetry and to think of it in relation to the poets I think of myself as in conversation with.

Poetry has always asked us to reflect on our relationships with the world beyond the human. One of poetry’s strengths is its insistence on the power of noticing – of paying attention. It also asks us to make connections between things that might not be immediately connected. That is, after all, what a metaphor is. This becomes particularly powerful when we connect across scales from the smallest thing to the biggest things. From individual snowdrops blooming in December (not just the wrong month but the wrong year) to what the writer Timothy Morton calls ‘hyperobjects’ – objects which are so large we cannot see the ends of them – objects which expand out in chaotic networks that threaten to challenge the possibility of human life on earth. Climate change.

One of poetry’s strengths is its insistence on the power of noticing – of paying attention

Poets make connections such as this but so do scientists. Poets and scientists are both creative. We also know that the people in general are much more likely to pay attention to environmental change when it can be located in their own lives, at a scale that is comprehensible. Lots of environmental work in relation to global heating is now focussed on getting people to see something happening in their gardens or on their streets. Citizen science asks us to pay careful attention to small things so that we can begin to piece together the networks that make big things and start, perhaps, to lead our lives more humbly in and with nature. I think this is one of the purposes of eco-poetry too – to jump scales so that unlikely things might be connected.

The boundaries of eco-poetry

I certainly think of some of my work as eco-poetry. I also use the terms “topo-poetics” (place making) and geo-poetics (earth making). “Eco” stems from the Greek oikos, which roughly means “household” but in the widest sense of all the ways we make the earth into a home. “Topo” comes from topos. Topos means “place” but also means literary or rhetorical form. A poem is a place as much as it is about a place, or about place in general. “Geo” also stems from ancient Greek and mean the earth but also land, ground country, and soil. Poetics, of course, comes from the ancient Greek term for making – bringing something into existence that did not previously exist. So, I like to think of my poetry as moving between, and combining these three themes of house/home, place, and earth/land/ground/soil.

While it would be foolish to insist on a strict boundary between what we might conventionally call “nature poetry” and “eco-poetry”, I do like the observation by the American poet Julia Spahr who notes the necessity of accounting for both the “beautiful bird” (the stereotypical object of nature poetry) and the “bulldozer off to the side that was destroying the bird’s habitat” (what makes it eco-poetry). In this formulation, traditional nature poetry is based on a separation of the natural world from the human world and insists on the otherworldliness of natural objects as beautiful, innocent, or awe-inspiring. Eco-poetry, on the other hand, is more focussed on the ways we make the house of earth into a home, and all the ways we do that badly.

It would be a mistake, however, to think of eco-poetry as a progression from more traditional nature poetry. I am a big fan of John Clare (writing here in 1820) precisely because he was able to see the beauty of singular objects of nature and to convey how they were impacted by the metaphorical bulldozers of the enclosure acts that threatened both the birds and hedgerows of his home landscape as well as his very sanity.

Mulberry-bushes where the boy would run
To fill his hands with fruit are grubbed and done

And hedgrow-briars – flower-lovers overjoyed
Came and got flower-pots – these are all destroyed
And sky-bound mores in mangled garbs are left
Like mighty giants of their limbs bereft

Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds
Of field and meadow large as garden grounds
In little parcels little minds to please
With men and flocks imprisoned ill at ease

Humour and subversion

Another aspect of eco-poetry I admire is the way it complicates the notion of the singular inspired male poet enraptured by the natural world – a figure Kathleen Jamie has called the “lone enraptured male” in a review of the writing of Robert Macfarlane (both writers I admire tremendously). Many ecopoets, and especially Juliana Spahr, use repetition, parataxis, multiple points of view, prose fragments and the incorporation of existing texts to avoid this sense of gifted individual sensitivity to “nature”. Her books Fuck You – Aloha – I Love You (2001) and well then there now (2011) are the most extraordinary and inspirational examples of this embrace of hybrid form which seems particularly well-suited to an eco-poetic project.

Kathleen Jamie is perhaps a more conventional poet and writer but looks to different places in her work – places that are normally peopled – and aware of the freighted histories of peopling – rather than some Scottish version of the “wild”. I love her essay in Sightlines called “Pathologies” that moves between a conference on the world of nature to the inside of dead bodies in a pathology lab which become landscapes on a microscale – landscapes full of “nature” in the form of viruses and bacteria that we are usually more than happy to get rid of despite their “natural” status. While not formally experimental in the way Spahr’s writing is, it is equally adept at muddying the boundaries of the human and natural worlds – boundaries that are really part of the problem and are often reinforced, rather than challenged, in much that is called “nature poetry”.

The Canadian poet, Don McKay writes eco-poetry with a healthy sense of humour and irony. While he is one of the very finest observers of the natural world – particularly rocks and bird, his poems often feature disarming reflection on the act of observation itself, successfully locating the roles of humanity, and his own thinking mind as an individual human, in the landscapes he is/we are implicated in. In his wonderful collection Strike/Slip, McKay consistently inserts (or, rather, refuses to exclude) humans into the mix of the Canadian landscapes he obviously loves. In his poem “Abandoned Cable” he focusses intently on Spahr’s bulldozer and, at the same time tells us something of the world of work that Jamie’s reminds us of.

This is how the will

will manage retirement: angry, kinked,

still waiting for its old buddy donkey-puncher to show up,

to step, pot-bellied and profane,

from the salmonberry bramble, build

a head of steam out of brag and booze

and show those soft-hearted

po-mo cappuccinos

something about work.

Another Canadian poet, and fellow geographer, Sarah de Leeuw, is writing some of the best eco-poetry out there. Her language has extraordinary energy and is often formally experimental and hybrid too. Her book, Skeena, is one of the great long-form river poems (up there with Alice Oswald’s now landmark poem, Dart).

We are given alternatives to the figure of the solitary inspired male poet

Like Oswald, de Leeuw traces a river in a way that connects insistently non-human aspects of river-ness with its human and colonial history (it is in British Columbia and thus a settler-colonial context). The flow of the poem/river is interrupted by archival fragments of industry and colonisation as well as Indigenous stories and forms of knowledge. Also, like Dart, the river has a voice. Here Skeena speaks of the activities that are now part of her.

Trains and trucks hurling grassy globs

animal shit                       tire rubber        salt        strips

swerving snakes off the 18-wheelers

still ripping they               slap me.

Wild hung fungus skunk cabbage scents

steel                  meshed crossing leathery

porcupine feet cling to you

                                        scuttle

                                                            scuttle

                    quill-less porcupine stomach

soft as young hemlock branches.

All of these contemporary eco-poets trouble the human/nature binary rather than reproduce it. The boundary, reinforced in nature poetry by that very terminology, is being troubled and worried. Also, in each case, we are given alternatives to the figure of the solitary inspired male poet who we have inherited from the Romantic movement.

Geography and poetry

As you can probably tell, from the way I have chosen to write this blog entry, it is hard to separate my life as an academic geographer from my life as poet. While I started out on the Faber Becoming a Poet course back in 2008 with the intention to do something quite separate from my academic life, it seems I cannot escape my academic enthusiasms. Poets are often warned off too much pre-thinking or overly “intellectual” content in their poems, often it seems to me, poets with an investment in the figure of the romantic poet or lone enraptured male.

As a geographer, I have spent decades thinking about the theme of place and its role in more-than-human life and this fascination cannot be put to one side. So, not surprisingly, I now think of all of my work as a continuum of ways to grapple with how we exist on, in and with the world around us. Just as I have not shied away from incorporating what might be thought of as specialist geography language and knowledge in my poetry, so my last academic book, Maxwell Street: Writing and Thinking Place foregrounded the act of writing in ways that academic books often to not. The book is, itself, a hybrid text with fragments of poems, parataxis, montage, and images throughout – all, hopefully, speaking to each other and allowing the reader to chart their own path without too much signposting. I see this as comfortably sitting alongside poets who increasingly do away with the boundaries of poetry and prose – Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine, Sarah Howe – and academics who are increasingly exploding conventional academic form, particularly the anthropologist Anna Tsing and her remarkable book The Mushroom at the End of the World in which she adeptly explores the connected geographies of the matsutake mushroom, the trees and soils it lives with and the people who forage, process and trade them, by mirroring the way mushrooms form clusters in her own non-linear short essays.

Given my original delighted reaction to the announcement of this new prize, I am honoured that my collection Plastiglomerate has found a home among the company of poets linking the beautiful bird to the bulldozer of our environmental hubris. Poets do such important work alongside scientists and others, and I am satisfied to be a very small part of that grand tradition.

Tim Cresswell's 2020 collection Plastiglomerate was published by Penned in the Margins and was longlisted for the Laurel Prize 2021.

Order your copy direct from us.

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