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The Language Habitat: an Ecopoetry Manifesto

The Language Habitat: an Ecopoetry Manifesto

By James Engelhardt

Ecopoetry is connection.

It’s a way to engage the world by and through language. This poetry might be wary of language, but at its core believes that language is an evolved ability that comes from our bodies, that is close to the core of who we are in the world. Ecopoetry might borrow strategies and approaches from postmodernism and its off-shoots, depending on the poet and their interests, but the ecopoetic space is not a postmodern space. An ecopoem might play with slippages, but the play will lead to further connections.

Ecopoetry does share a space with science. One of the concerns of ecopoetry is non-human nature (it shares this concern with the critical apparatus it borrows from, ecocriticism). It certainly shares that concern with most of the world’s history of poetry: How can we connect with non-human nature that seems so much more, so much larger than ourselves? How can we understand it? One way is to laud nature unrealistically. Another is to praise of the human control of nature. Ecopoetry, though, pushes past the traditions of the pastoral or the georgic; as in science, nature is neutral and can only be approached with the understanding that non-human nature will forever remain non-human. It is profoundly Other and starkly confronts us with what it means to be human. As poets, we can approach and explore non-human nature, but the connection will always retreat. Science, however, allows the poet to name things carefully. And it looks into the mind that makes and reads poems and points the poet toward compositional, structural, and aesthetic strategies.

Some ecopoetry wishes to engage nature as a spiritual space, but we live in bodies, not spirit. We can only speak from a bodied connection to the world. The body is a genetic space as well, and that means that family is a natural concern of ecopoetry. The family that came before us, the family around us, the family we create and that will outlive us. Families form culture, they connect us to culture; they are where culture begins. Families come out of histories and places. Thus, a successful family ecopoem must look outside the immediate, constrained concerns of the nuclear family.

The ecopoem must connect to the culture and society that it inhabits. You might ask, How can it not? But when thinking about an ecology, it’s easy to overlook aspects of the system, including the largest aspects. Culture is a product of evolution; it is a product of non-human nature, yet we recognize it as our own, human product. The ecopoem must contend with this paradox; it must connect here. Culture. Non-human nature. It is around these indissoluble differences that ecopoetics searches for the transitional phases, the ecotones, the shifting boundaries that yield language, insight, struggle. But of course these differences aren’t differences at all. We are natural beings building cities as naturally as bees build hives. Unlike the bee, however, we are aware of the hives we build, why we built them, how they connect, intellectually, to other hives, other people. Also unlike the bee, when we look to other creatures, we understand that we cannot know them. Thus, the differences swirl back up to surround us and the search for poetry begins again.

The ecopoem is connected to the world, and this implies responsibility. Like other poetic models that assume a connection and engagement (feminism, Marxism, witness, etc.), ecopoetry is surrounded by questions of ethics. Should the ecopoem do something in the world? But how can a poem be said to accomplish anything? Or is that position only of a poetics that recognizes only aesthetics? Is there a rhetoric to ecopoetry? Can the ecopoem be compelling as an object and as a political call? Is the meaning of non-human nature stable? Does—can it?—have a meaning at all? These are questions that remain open, that the community of ecopoets must track down, investigate, turn their minds to again and again.

Lastly, the ecopoem must connect to the human capacity to play. More so even than our animal cousins, we are creatures who play. Ecopoems must allow our full range of joy and experimentation as we try to connect to our world and the other creatures here with us. Play allows for interdependent coevolution that explores the contingent within connection, that lets the mind roam without limit. Play reveals deep connections.

Even as we try to understand and make sense of a world that will ultimately evade us, as we decide what responsibility we should exercise, as we work to bring culture and science into our work, ecopoets must remember our bodies, our families, and push the range of our language.


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