The BOOKPRESS February, 1996

Towards an Environmentalist Poetics

Steven Chapman

The Environmental Crisis

It is hard to talk meaningfully about the environmental crisis without collapsing into tongue-tied despair at the magnitude of the problem, the indifference of most academic discourses, and the seeming futility of yet more words. Even with the emergence of new fields of inquiry such as Earth Science and Environmental Studies, modern intellectuals as a whole remain paralyzed before the greatest dilemma confronting humanity at this juncture in history: the pathological ecocide carried out against our planetary home by degraded forms of technological civilization.

While the seeds of our current predicament are found in certain basic assumptions lying at the foundation of the Western tradition (about the relationship between humans and nature, the correct use of technology, etc.), only now are the practical consequences of those earlier tendencies made manifest. What distinguishes the current age is the massive scale of the violence being perpetrated against the earth. We are entering a phase where the limits of growth are becoming palpable and discernible, and where the realization of the technological wonderworld is being exposed as endless wasteland. The high-energy model of economic development invented in Europe and America and now being exported to the rest of the world is predicated upon the rapid and irreversible depletion of natural resources, and is therefore inherently unsustainable. Current patterns of production and distribution are severely testing the amount of abuse the earth can bear, threatening to obviate the gains of economic progress made in other areas of life. To list but a few of the negative consequences of overdevelopment: global warming, acid rain, deforestation in both the temperate and tropical zones, contamination of the water tables, massive erosion, depletion of fisheries, uncontrolled urban sprawl. Only two centuries after its implementation, the model of unchecked industrial development is rapidly losing its viability. In this context, environmentalism is not just one more -ism, but an ethical imperative and our last chance for the preservation of the natural world and any sort of dignified existence for coming generations.

The Ecological Worldview

Our current age is one of crisis, but also of transition and promise. We have reached what Fritjof Capra has called the turning point : a fundamental paradigm shift in which the outworn creeds of technological society must be replaced by alternative models of human civility. Positive signs of the times can be seen in the founding of hundreds of organizations dedicated to the protection of the environment: the celebration of Earth Day since 1970, the United Nations sponsored conferences on the environment in Stockholm and Rio, the increasing relevance of Green politics in Europe, groups such as Greenpeace and Earth First!, and the emergence of Deep Ecology and Ecofeminism. Since the late sixties, when the environmental crisis was first thrust into the public sphere, there has been a widening and deepening of perspectives. In practically all fields--philosophy, sociology, economics, politics, theology, even (belatedly) literary studies--a gradual process of greening is occurring. There is a growing consensus among people from many different walks of life that our society needs to be reinvented from the ground up, and that the human economy must be brought into harmony with the larger economy of nature.

What is Environmentalist Poetics?

As the environmentalist movement matures beyond the concerns of individual scientists and activists, it becomes necessary to cultivate a deeper level of philosophical and cultural awareness. The deep changes in lifestyle and outlook that the environmental crisis demands must be grounded within an ethical or even a religious understanding of the interrelationships connecting human beings with the larger biotic community. By invoking a possible environmentalist poetics , I am seeking to formulate what a literary component of a holistic ecological worldview might be. Its underlying motivation is a very personal concern with environmental issues and a sense that the humanities can no longer afford to remain oblivious to the fate of the universe.

Under the heading of poetics, I would gather not only the literary arts but all varieties of cultural expression: music, architecture, painting, dance, etc. But a poetics, at least as Aristotle defined it, is concerned in the first instance with the art and manner of making poems, with "poetry in itself and of its various kinds." By focusing on the links between nature ( physis ) and poiesis , environmentalist poetics explores the significance of literary works of art in terms of their manifold relationships to the natural world. Its critical focus is on the links between poetic language and nature, the multiple dependencies of the imagination on natural phenomena, the spontaneous metaphorics of nature giving rise to poetic figures, and the primary role of creativity in both nature and art. The project is still largely experimental, and the following paragraphs are intended simply as notes or prolegomena towards a more thorough articulation. My goals here are to encourage new forms of thinking about the relationships between poetry and nature, to argue for the importance of a literary component to the emerging ecological worldview, and to show how ecological paradigms can be fruitfully applied to specific poems by authors as diverse as Goethe, Anna de Noailles and Gary Snyder.

The Paradigms of Ecology

The methodological particularity of environmentalist poetics is its invocation of the paradigms of ecology, both as field work toward a more integrated ecological worldview, and because the models of ecology have special relevance for the study of literature. Derived from the Greek oikos (house or home) and logos (word or teaching), ecology is the discourse of the teachings of the earth, and of the house rules which govern the intercourse of living beings and their environments. It was defined as a discipline in the mid-nineteenth century by the zoologist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel: "Ecology is the study of the interdependence and interaction of living organisms (animals and plants) and their environments (inanimate matter)." Building on the methods of ecology, environmentalist poetics explores the products of human creativity in terms of their relationships with the natural world, revealing the multiple dependencies and parallelisms between creative systems and ecosystems. Since the paradigms of ecology are themselves in continual evolution, tending more and more to embrace humanistic, spiritual and cosmological concerns (human ecology, mental ecology, deep ecology, etc.), their application to poetry promises to yield a rich array of interdisciplinary insights.

First Things

Most contemporary literary criticism is hard put to talk about nature in more than trivial ways (due partly to the divergent trackings of the humanities and the natural sciences). In contradistinction to the indifference or even hostility towards the idea of nature displayed in Deconstruction, New Historicism and other currently fashionable methodologies, environmentalist poetics begins with the dictum that nature matters . By casting its stakes deep into the material reality of nature, it seeks to get underneath the exaggerated dualisms of the mainstream Western tradition (nature/culture, body/soul, material/spiritual etc.) and focus instead on the identities and homologies subsisting between natural and cultural phenomena, between biological and mental processes, and between naturalism and supernaturalism. In terms of its larger critical and philosophical dependencies, it is rooted in an alternative ontic-materialist "it is" tradition extending through the Presocratics, Spinoza, and Thoreau, and which is expressed today in Deep Ecology's commitment to a radical and uncompromising ecocentrism.

Environmentalist poetics thus aspires to a deeper materialism than dialectics: a materiality of rocks and trees and autumn leaves and spring flowers. It affirms the meaning and significance of nature for its own sake, while showing how specific texts illuminate that meaning in various ways. This entails a very physical approach to reading poems and a steady focus on the material reality behind the deployment of literary figures. It means keeping in mind the bioregional context within which given works were composed: Wordsworth's Lake District, the New England landscape for Thoreau, the Ligurian coast for Montale. It means listening carefully to what poets have to say about their feelings for nature and their claims for natural inspiration. Above all, it means attending to the creative energy residing in nature and its respiration and repetition in works of art.


A poetics which would cultivate an ontological awareness of the relations between nature and art could do worse than return to the concept of mimeseis . Mimeseis should be understood here not in the Platonic sense of a clumsy reconstruction of an ideal form, and certainly not in Theodor Adorno's awkward usage of the term to signify aesthetic autonomy, but in the most basic Aristotelian sense of organic reproduction. Art does indeed copy nature. Mimeseis is the primary vehicle of mediation between nature and culture, functioning not only at the level of signs and visual representation, but of larger configurations of meaning as well.

All forms of poetry, in their general conception, are forms of imitation. As Aristotle makes clear in his Poetics, what the artist produces is not a fading copy of the thing represented, but a likeness ( homoioma ) or even a living organism ( zoon ). In the broadest sense, mimeseis is the mechanism whereby the natural world becomes constitutive of the world unfolded by the poem. In its flourishing, poetry can acquire a limited autonomy, present itself as a second nature of epiphenomenal reality, and even gesture beyond itself towards a realm of possible transcendence. Still, the elements which go into the making of a poem are ultimately derived from the earth, and the best poetry never loses touch with its native soil.

Earth Poetry

A poetics which would cultivate a sensitivity to the earth must first try to understand the primary language of nature within a more general semiotics, focusing not only on the traces of nature within literary texts but on the signifying potential of trees and flowers and the inherent readability of the world . Poetry is permeated with natural metaphors because nature itself is charged with poetic significance.

The old topos of the Book of Nature has been too hastily dismissed. In the right light, nature can be seen as a complex sign-system of correspondences and signatures, what Baudelaire referred to only half in jest as "the language of flowers and silent things." That primary language, what Herder intuited as nature's first revelation ("Urkunde") to humankind, is structured like a vast cosmological poem. This poem is echoed in the founding poetic traditions of all cultures, and in the works of those modern poets who have ears to hear.

Nature has always had something to say, and what she says is expressed most eloquently in those poems written in response to her calling. A poetics attuned to the primary poetry of the earth can understand better the resonances, revel in the harmonies, and be part of the music while the music lasts.


The deepest ecological mystery is nature's endless creativity revealed in the history of evolution and in the never-ending display of life forms in the contemporary biosphere. Of his first trip to the Galapagos, Darwin wrote: "I am astonished at the amount of creative force, if such an expression may be used, displayed in these small barren and rocky islands." While Darwin later explained the appearance of creativity through such mechanisms as random mutation and natural selection, the new biology has come to understand the earth as a living organism (call it Gaia if you want) whose greater purposiveness includes not only developmental stability but creative self-expression.

The artist shares with nature both the indwelling creative energy giving birth to expression and the impulse towards ever more refined forms. For this the poet has been called a new Prometheus, a second maker under Jove. Poetry over the ages has thrived on a privileged access to that creative power, and a poetics grounded in an affective attachment to nature can show how that creativity echoes and reverberates in a thousand individual acts of creation. Especially in those poets sensitive to the primary poetry of the earth, there occurs a kind of symbiosis between nature and the poetic imagination--as if poetry itself were but the extension of nature's own act of creation.

Poets from all different cultures have looked to nature for inspiration, and their claims deserve to be taken seriously. It is no bluff that the primary natural symbol for inspiration in almost all languages is the wind, as in the Hebrew ruach , the Greek pneuma , or the Latin spiritus . For it is the same kinetic or erotic energy which drives the unfolding cosmic mystery and the creative flourishings of poetry. A poetics which plies a middle course between air currents and literary inspiration can hearken to the creative power of the wind itself and to the wafting of this figure in literary texts, as in the opening lines of Montale's Limine : "Rejoice when the breeze that enters from the orchard/ brings you back the tidal rush of life." (tr. Arrowsmith).

Words and Things

But poems are made from words, not from airy sentiments. A fundamental and a priori obligation of environmentalist poetics is to examine the complex inter-referentiality between language and nature, or between words and things. At least one of the advantages of pre-Saussurian linguistics was that it did not abstract language from its material substrata. The current wisdom that a signifier can refer only to another signifier is correct as far as it goes, but fails when elevated into dogma. Language is not a prison house of signs referring to other signs, but trembles in constant rapport with the world of people and things.

Poetic language especially is not arbitrary, but historically and semantically determined. There is an immediacy between things and signs which grounds the reality of the poem and holds its constitutive elements in place. A poem coheres because it correlates to the world of natural referents. I say a rose, and in spite of the absence of any immediate bouquet, flowers spring inevitably to mind. They can be recreated poetically only because they exist in my garden. The miracle is not the absence of the thing signified, nor even the construction of a disembodied hyperreality (as in Mallarmé), but that so many possible significations could sprout from such fertile soil. Take away that primary reality, and the whole edifice of symbolic, aesthetic, philosophical and literary connotations associated with the figure of the rose would fade into nothingness. Most worthy of veneration is not the far-off, inviolate and mystical rose of Yeats, but the incomparable real rose, even the slightly faded rose, or the rose pressed between the pages of a book. This is the true epiphany, the primary revelation of nature against which the figural rose in its fullest flowering pales in comparison. As the poet and mystic Angelus Silesius once put it: "a rose is without why."


Even that most important and illusive trope of language, the delivery-boy of possible meanings and the basic exchange mechanism of poetry--metaphor--cannot be understood without continual cross-reference to the world of things. While metaphors break through the syntagmatic ordering of literal referents, carrying over meanings from one context to another, they still depend on their grounding in natural facts. In primitive poetry especially, what one finds is an implication of the order of nature within the order of poetic convention. The phonetic make up of the words Hector and oak may be arbitrary, but the full force of the Homeric simile depends upon an imaginative reconstruction of the natural scene. Or take this fragment from Sapho:

Like a mountain whirlwind

punishing the oak trees,

love shattered my heart.

(tr. Barnstone)

The power of this verse depends on the transfer of the natural phenomenon of trees being lashed by the raging wind (vehicle) to describe the psychic phenomenon of love (tenor). The metaphor does not wholly uproot the crashing trees from their mountain homes, but suggests how love is signified by every clash of the elements--vouching for the sacred intimacy of nature and the life of the emotions celebrated in lyric from Theocritus to Petrarch to Neruda.


The primary responsibility of any poetics is the study of poetry, and can be justified only insofar as it enhances our understanding of specific texts. Environmentalist poetics does this by mediating between the representations of nature in literature and the larger ecological worldview. The fruitful exchange between poetry and ecology works both ways, for not only can the paradigms of ecology provide a set of powerful critical tools for fleshing out meanings of literary texts, but poetic insights often anticipate in intuitive or pre-objective fashion the discoveries of modern ecological theory.

The larger project for an environmentalist poetics might entail something like a natural history of literature , showing how natural themes and images are reflected and processed among different cultures and periods. Here, I restrict myself to providing readings of three poems which serve as snapshots of a possible ecocentric literary tradition. Each of these poems bears witness to the workings of the ecological imagination, to the dependencies of the poetic imagination on natural phenomena, and to the creative symbiosis between nature and the organic imagination.


Song of the Spirits upon the Waters

Goethe, whatever else he may be, is the first modern hero of environmentalist poetics and the proto-ecological way of life. Many of his poems explicitly thematize the links between mind and nature, while showing how the spontaneous creativity of nature overflows in poetic figures. Goethe's poetry of the organic imagination is succinctly postulated in the Gesang der Geister über den Wassern ( Song of the Spirits upon the Waters ), composed in the shadow of a gushing cataract at Lauterbrune (near Interlaken) during his first journey to Switzerland. With its well-wrought metaphors stressing the interpenetration of the physical and psychic worlds, it imaginatively enacts the communion between subject and object which is the hallmark of the ecological imagination. It begins like a Bach fugue with the exposition of a dominant theme followed by development:

The soul of man

Is like water:

It comes from heaven It climbs to heaven

And to earth once more

It must come down,

Forever changing.

What strikes here is the immediacy of the comparison, captured forcefully by the dative in gleicht dem Wasser forming an extended allegory or parable ( Gleichnis ) of the operations of the soul. The imagery of the poem applies equally well to both water and soul, suggesting an inner reciprocity of natural and mental processes. The destiny of water in the biosphere, with its various stages of precipitation, riverrun and evaporation, analogizes a vaguely Neoplatonic eschatology in which souls migrate between heaven and earth (even if Goethe's own cosmology is more pre-Socratic).

The description unfolds along an intermediate axis between the literal and figural registers of meaning with a symmetry so perfect that it is sometimes difficult to tell whether Goethe is drawing on natural metaphors to describe the operations of the soul, or on psychological metaphors to describe natural processes. The poem winds its way to closure with an extended parallelism between the wind blowing the waves and Fate ( Schicksal ) determining the destiny of man. While Goethe accepted the basic bleakness of Spinoza's moralism, he tempered it with a willful affirmation of the whole of life and an almost Dionysian exaltation in both the creative and destructive aspects of nature.

Anna de Noailles: Living Deeply

The question is sometimes posed (especially in Ecofeminist circles) whether women possess a more intimate relationship to nature than men. The poetry of Anna de Noailles would seem to substantiate such a claim while anticipating in poetic form what some modern theorists have called the ecological soul : the soul which comes into being through conscious participation with natural processes. In this sonnet, entitled La vie profonde ( Living Deeply ), Noailles articulates an almost religious attachment to nature along with the sheer joy of being alive:

Being in nature like a human tree,

Spreading desires about like deep foliage,

And feeling, in the peaceful night and in the storm,

The universal sap flowing through your hands!

Living with the sun's rays on your face,

Savoring the heady brine of ocean spume and tears,

And drinking deeply of both joy and pain

Which forms a cloud of humanity in the empty air.

To feel within the beating heart: air, fire and blood

Whirling about like wind on the ground;

To rise up to the Real, to peer into the Mystery,

To be the rising day and falling shade.

And when the evening glows a cherry red,

To let fire and water flow from a crimson heart,

And like the clear dawn on elbows propped

To sit dreamily on the margins of the world...

This poem is about being-in-nature, combining admittedly late-romantic themes with a feminist inflection and a modernist existential urgency. It invokes a feeling of unity and sympathy with nature, in which--quoting loosely from Dylan Thomas--the green fuse which drives the flower is also the power that flows through the blood. The self-reflexive yet largely impersonal constructions of the French text form a sort of open invitation to the reader to enter into sympathy and solidarity with the rest of creation and even become part of nature's own creative self-expression. It asks us to imagine what it would be like to be one with the rest of creation, to feel the universal sap flowing through our veins, to live in the sun's rays, and to flow with the cycles of the day and of the seasons. The poem is structured like a rite of initiation into the deep ecological mystery in which the boundaries separating the "I" and the "Not I" break down. In this moment of phenomenological nakedness, nature is endowed with almost human consciousness as the perceiving soul rises upon creation to recognize its own co-creative power.

Gary Snyder: Turtle Island

Gary Snyder, driven by the same spirit of the wild which fired John Muir, has been vying for many years to assume Whitman's mantel to become the contemporary poet of the American ecological soul. Ecological paradigms are indispensable to understanding his work, which presents itself in explicit collaboration with an activist environmentalist platform, and is the appropriately self-conscious poetic expression of both the critical and utopian aspects of the Deep Ecology movement . Snyder's best poems, such as Turtle Island , are hymns of pure praise:

Ah to be alive

on a mid-September morn

fording a stream

barefoot, pants rolled up

holding boots, pack on,

sunshine, ice in the shallows,

northern rockies.

Rustle and shimmer of icy creek waters

stones turn underfoot, small and hard on toes

cold nose dripping

singing inside

creek music, heart music

smell of sun on gravel.

I pledge allegiance,

I pledge allegiance to the soil

of Turtle Island

one ecosystem

in diversity

under the sun--

With joyful interpenetration for all.

This poem is about being-in-nature with cold toes. It conveys a sense of concrete sensual experience along with the familiar correspondences between inner and outer, subject and object, creek music and heart music. It is regionally specific, paying homage to a particular place: an ecosystem, a bioregion, a micro-climate in the cool Northern Rockies. Snyder's poetry is refreshingly down to earth , rooted in actual circumstance and in the very physical presence of his own poetic voice. In this poem, we can almost see Snyder in his rough woolly clothes, boots in hand, and a broad smile underneath his beard. The allusions to varieties of patriotism express Snyder's emphatic option for preserving the wild while intuiting the possibility of a new ecocentric model of American constitutionalism based on organic diversity and "joyful interpenetration for all": another America lying underneath the current system of economic development, a greener America of protected wilderness, maybe even a beautiful America.

The Reenchantment of the World

One of the reasons the modern environmentalist movement has made such little headway is that it is insufficiently grounded. A serious commitment to the earth must be based on more than utilitarian arguments or even common sense. In the long run, environmentalism needs to be sustained by a vision of the sacrality of the natural world, what I think Thomas Berry means when he speaks of the dream of the earth . The cultivation of such a vision is perhaps the greatest service that literary criticism can do for the environment. By attending to the spontaneous creativity of nature and its resonances within works of art, environmentalist poetics can contribute to a sense of a living cosmology, while working towards what Morris Berman calls the reenchantment of the world . The spiritual history of the West, especially during the last two hundred years, has been one of progressive disenchantment and the elimination of the category of the sacred from most people's daily lives. The poetological celebration of the earth can help us to break out of the interposed framings of technological society and rediscover a sense of the sacred vitality of the cosmos, for the same principle of creative energy and love underlies both nature and art.

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