Having in hand four of the six papers intended for presentation at the recent AWP conference in Vancouver, I've decided not to delay posting them any further. The missing papers (by Richard Greenfield and Bin Ramke) will follow when I receive them. The papers are presented as written with no editorial interference from me aside from regularizing punctuation and making italics, etc., web friendly. I begin with Jonathan Skinner's statement, e-mailed to me to be read in lieu of his actual presence, but unfortunately not received in time. I am pleased to be able to present it here, and think it does an excellent job of mapping the territory the subsequent papers explore in more detail. Enjoy!Jonathan SkinnerBrief Statement for "New Nature Writing" Panel at 2005 AWP
I first off would like to express my sincerest regrets at missing this panel—due to circumstances beyond my control (an airline bankruptcy, no less!)
I have been greatly looking forward to this discussion. I'd like to accept Corey's invitation to read a brief statement on my behalf.
It has been an extremely rich year for what might be called the "new" nature writing: Jack Collom's Extremes and Balances
(Farfalla Press, 2004), Brenda Iijima's Around Sea
(O Books, 2004), Allen Fisher's Entanglement
(The Gig, 2004), Stacy Szymaszek's Some Mariners
(Etherdome, 2004) and Mutual Aid
(g o n g. 2004), David Hinton's Fossil Sky
(Archipelago, 2004) and his translations of The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-Jin
(Archipelago, 2004), Eleni Sikelianos's The California Poem
(Coffee House Press, 2004), Ian Davidson's At A Stretch
(Shearsman Books, 2004), Lisa Robertson's Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture
(Clear Cut Press, 2003), Michael Ives's The External Combustion Engine
(Futurepoem Books, 2005), Jonathan Skinner's Political Cactus Poems
(Palm Press, 2005), J.H. Prynne's Furtherance
(The Figures, 2004), Jacques Roubaud's Grand Kyrielle du Sentiment des Choses
(Nous, 2003), Juliana Spahr's This Connection of Everyone With Lungs
(University of California, 2005), Theodore Enslin's Nine
(National Poetry Foundation, 2004), to name a few titles (focusing on poetry) . . .
Increasingly, however, I wonder at the value of the term itself "nature writing": doesn't all writing have "nature" in it? If only human nature, or the nature of words . . . Obviously, there is a value, and a need, for writing focused specifically on the so-called natural world (a focus that characterizes the above-mentioned works). Taking, again, the case of poetry, ecocritics have made a useful distinction between nature poetry and ecopoetry—to paraphrase Juliana Spahr, one focuses (apolitically) only on the bird, the other considers, as well, the bulldozer about to destroy the bird's habitat. Think Mary Oliver for nature poetry, Gary Snyder for ecopoetry. Many of the abovementioned works, issued between 2003 and 2005, hover in-between.
But I am even suspicious of the term "ecopoetry": either it's redundant, reduplicating the "eco" already built into the ecology of words that, presumably, is poetry's business, or it instrumentalizes (i.e. pigeonholes) poetry in a way that's distasteful to any poet worth paying attention to. I strongly reject the perverse aim of an ecopoetry that would somehow turn us away from the tasks of poetry, to more important or urgent concerns. (Though I sympathize with the desire to get readers to look up from the page and pay attention to their surroundings.) In my own work as editor of the magazine ecopoetics
, I have relied on the notion of "ecopoetics"as a site for poetic attention and exchange, where many different kinds of making (not just poetry, or not even just writing, and certainly not just "ecopoetry") can come to inform and be informed. Hopefully this panel, that I am so sorry to miss, can function as such a site. (Speaking of ecopoetics
, issue 04 is behind schedule but due to appear in the next month.)
Nevertheless, to take the notion of "nature writing" in hand, I'd like to propose a short taxonomy of nature writing (or of ecopoetry or ecopoetics). This taxonomy could be used to sort different writings, or different aspects of the same piece of writing.
The first category I'd call the topological
, which covers the referential function most ecocritics privilege—perhaps specifically the literature and poetry of place, but more generally any referring "outside" the poem to a "natural" topos.
I borrow a chapter from Jed Rasula's provocative book-length essay, This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry
, to describe the second, tropological
category. This we see in the current proliferation of exercises in analogy, casting poems as somehow functioning like ecosystems or complex systems, troping on language and ideas from the environmental sciences. Gary Snyder's famous description of the poet as detritus feeder is the best-known example, though more recently, poet Marcella Durand has been making some fascinating forays into the "ecosystem poem" (in a serial and procedural mode taking somewhat after Francis Ponge). Cf. also Angus Fletcher's discussion of the "environment poem" in A New Theory of American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment and the Future of Imagination
The third category, what I call entropological
poetics, I borrow from land artist and writer Robert Smithson: the practice engaged directly with materials and processes, where entropy, transformation and decay are part of the creative work. Any "concrete" writing focused primarily on the procedures and materiality of the letter might fall into this category (John Cage's "writings through" Thoreau, Ronald Johnson's concrete Songs of the Earth
, Ian Hamilton Finlay's poetry garden Little Sparta
, Cecilia Vicuna's etymological ruminations, John Cayley's electronic textual transformations), but also other kinds of "writing" that involve marking the land or natural processes and that might more properly be considered under the rubric of the visual arts (Vicuna's precario
installations, Mierle Laderman Ukeles's "maintenance art," Hamesh Fulton's walks, Andy Goldsworthy's countless interventions in natural materials).
Finally, I'd include a fourth, supremely important, category: the ethnological
. Whether nature contains the human or humanity contains nature is impossible to conclude. What we do know is that humans have been around a long time, and that, as we learn when we look at them more closely, many so-called "wild" landscapes are intensively anthropogenic. As ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan proposes, the disappearance of species and the (astonishingly rapid) disappearance of human languages on earth are intimately related, part of the same extinction. The Western Enlightenment's creation of "nature" might even be considered a subset of Western rationality's creation of the subaltern, indigenous subject (a conquest which, as anthropologist Walter D. Mignolo argues in Local Histories/ Global Designs
, actually precedes the Cartesian cogito). Learning about the landscapes our "nature" has obscured necessarily entails tasks of translation outside Western languages and cultures; it also means becoming more self-conscious about our own ethnic projections. In this sense, an ecopoetics is always already an ethnopoetics.
These categories—the topological, the tropological, the entropological and the ethnological—have helped me to navigate the wilderness of new nature writing, mainly to identify the different emphases of various approaches, or to separate out which aspects of a poem, say, are really doing ecological work. (I tend to privilege the entropological and the ethnological over the tropological and the topological, but all dimensions are important.) I'd be the first to admit that such "categories" smell rather strongly of the lamp, of the work I have been doing in graduate school, so I offer them here (through the good graces of Josh) in the fervent hopes that you will make quick hash of them and send me the remnants for composting in my garden. Wishing you a good discussion and a great time in Vancouver—make sure you get out to the park! * * *Karen Leona AndersonThe New Nature Writing and the Old Science Poem
I am brought up short with delight by science in lyrical writing; be it Forrest Gander's Science and Steepleflower
, the natural history of Marianne Moore's pangolin or Bin Ramke's chemical names for color in his new book matter
. I like what he calls the "pretty names," the selenium, the silver bromoiodide, and I like the facty feel of some of it: Moore's pangolin the self-contained and determinate "armored animal" with a "grit-equipped gizzard" and "sting-proof scales." Science arrests me for good reasons, I guess: the faculty brat of a botanist and a syntax linguist, the names of things and their properties have always seemed not just authoritative but important, and further, edifying. And in our disciplinary culture, it is still a displacement, a bit of discipline-crossing allowed to happen, but just for a little and with the help of experts. Even so, it is this nowhere of the scientific bit that I think is the best thing about it: because in the right writer's hands (Gander, Ramke, Moore) it arrests not just me, but stops some larger machine of predictability; suggests, in the pangolin, the selenium, an approach to the natural and nonhuman: a different way to see, or to speak. Even better, it might suggest a different, maybe even a new, way to be.
Lest I seem to be saying that all science breeds progressive politics, or I seem to be a wholesale fan of newness, let me cite the most recent Michael Crichton novel, State of Fear
, a tale of the environmentalist conspiracy of global warming and the clear-headed scientist who foils it, for example, by destroying detonators intended to produce a lethal tsunami. This involves science, too, though I understand a large part of it is inaccurate, even by the most lax standards of that particular industry (see New Scientist
). But it is also a kind of new nature writing, instructive in the author's note that follows the text of the novel: "Nobody knows how much warming will occur in the next century," Crichton argues, "I would guess the increase will be about 0.812436 degrees Celsius." He adds "There is no evidence that my guess about the state of the world one hundred years from now is any better or worse than anyone else's." But the most interesting thing Crichton says to establish his own scientific credentials as an interpreter of the non-human world is the final line of his author's message: "Everyone has an agenda. Except me."
The book may be 2004, but the idea is vintage; since Bacon's seventeenth century corrective to based on faith or speculation, some part of the cultural perception of science has been its promise of the clean, unbiased fact, nature in the buff; and since Bruno Latour's 1987 Science in Action
, at least, we have been aided by the perception that to view any and all scientific endeavors this way is to miss not just the sinister effects of believing that military industrial labs are just harmlessly pursuing the naked truth but to miss all the richness and potential of science as a cultural phenomenon, a way that hypothesis admittedly entangled with an agenda and tested still might produce surprises, something new; even better, something useful.
So looking forward might mean looking back; Emily Dickinson, that product of a rigorous New England scientific education, knew that. "We must travel abreast of Nature—but where is the Horse?" she asks in a prose fragment. But it is coming up from behind, for the fragment continues: "A something overtakes the mind—we do not hear it coming." (PF 116). To try to draw abreast of this personification of nature, then to be noiselessly overtaken by it, is for Dickinson a historical process and a social process as well as an epistemological one. An example: To the compliant female Nature that pervades scientific texts from her childhood botany textbooks to the pages of the Atlantic Monthly
she perused as an adult, a Nature who is described as "patiently smiling under the improving hand of cultivation," Dickinson writes back with her own agenda:
Nature is a stranger yet—
Those who cite her most,
Have never passed her haunted house
Nor simplified her ghost—
To pity those who know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her know her less
the nearer her they get.
Trying to know Nature, writing the nonhuman, is to Dickinson a necessarily social as well as a truth-seeking enterprise; and that work is simultaneously as crucial and impossible as knowing another person. Thus, her poem implies, it is best to be scrupulously polite, lest that confidently citing and cultivating human hand miss Nature entirely and land on something scarier—not Tennyson's "Nature red in tooth and claw," but a ghost.
Despite having excellent manners, and a theory that suggested Nature, if she was a person, was not very worried about humanity, not even Charles Darwin could resist the fix of kindly maternal Nature against which Dickinson writes. But he offers a starting point for another poet who joins Dickinson some seventy years later in looking back to look forward, Lorine Niedecker. Niedecker is interested less in Darwin's certainties than his unease, celebrating the political, social, historical and epistemological possibilities that scientific hypothesis and its slowly accruing evidence can offer to the project of writing the social. She ends a late poem about Darwin's life with a quote from Darwin's letter to Charles Lyell that showed him to be as resignedly anxious about the revolutionary effects of his theory as perhaps he ought to have been: "Let each man hope and believe what he can."
For me, however, it's not that Niedecker notices how science can be productively social and constructively indeterminate that is a model for the new nature writing but what she makes of that indeterminacy. One of her longest poems, "Wintergreen Ridge," which was written about the time Latour was writing his own conclusions about the social implications of science, brings together the profound indeterminacy that evolution implies about species survival with the politics of late capitalism to suggest that this style of industrialism is not a very good strategy for evolutionary survival:
second shift steamfitter
ran arms out
as tho to fly
dived to concrete
from loading dock
lost his head
(I miss the gulls)
mourn the loss
no wild bird does
in the eaves
to no one
but Great Storm
In "Wintergreen Ridge," things and ideas and organisms aren't necessarily better because they are newer; in fact, the worship of commodified newness hinders our ability to see that we can choose to acknowledge our interdependence on the nonhuman, or we can simply become extinct: that indeterminacy is the real revelation of natural selection. The test of poetry, for Niedecker, becomes then whether it can be of use, to the humans who are, whether they admit it or not, also Nature.
So much for New, so much for Nature. But do we want to dispense with writing? Perhaps it will survive if it can look both at the ways knowledge and culture coincide with and resist each other, look forward and backward, can say to its reader: Everyone has an agenda. Including me. Elizabeth Willis read in our Ithaca-based reading series last month from a new book called Meteorite Flowers
, made up of poems that take their titles from Erasamus Darwin's poems. This Darwin was Charles's grandfather and a bit of a cross-disciplinary kook by today's standards, writing a long poems that explicated his social and scientific ideas about botany and evolution, later to be refined as natural selection by his grandson. Elizabeth introduced her own poems by saying she thought that Darwin had provided a model for integrating knowledge, including science, as it is lived, as it is experienced in everyday life: and so I'll leave you with this new / old / nonhuman / human / prose / poem, in the Niedecker-tinged hope that it will be of use, maybe even to those who believe themselves to be agendaless. And while I started with my delight, I'll end with Willis' joy:
THE EARTH'S NUCLEUS* * *Sally KeithThe following short essay/meditation makes example of Inger Christensen's book length poem alphabet in light of a " New Nature Poem," a poem, then, to my mind, that challenges the interaction between the human-poet and the earth, a poem that interrogates the space between human-poet and human-poem. Inger Christensen is a Danish poet, born in 1935; her book alphabet was translated by Susanna Nied and published by New Directions in 2000. The number of lines in each of the fourteen parts of alphabet increase as determined by the Fibonacci Sequence, whereby the addition of two consecutive numbers equals the next in the series. Within each of Christensen's fourteen parts the lines break off into discrete poems and by counting stanza length and poem length the reader uncovers a multitude of new and connecting Fibonacci codes. The ratio between any two consecutive numbers in the sequence equals the Golden Ratio so that all progression is mathematically equal. Simultaneously, the reader feels peacefully resigned and an active count.
This dirtball invites me to think "with" not "for" it. I display a desperation spoken straight from my feet. Should I hear you cry, I wouldn't think before I dropped my glove to find you; that's how dirt thinks. Why the ear, the shape of longing, why the endless whorl you came from? Seeing air doesn't mean it sees you back. The latest molecule might travel far enough to hide you underground for good. Even while we stare the season down, worlds pour like symptoms of its greedy polished joy.
The following response to Christensen is divided into sections the lengths of which are constructed so that the number of sentences equal the section numbers, which match the Fibonnaci code. It follows naturally that any two consecutive sections, as in Christensen, pressed together shall equal in essence, according to the Golden Ratio, and while each point may be held in equality, the chance for discovery must also be preserved.
NEW NATURE: Inger Christensen's alphabet
The truth is I can never start.
The truth is I can never stop starting.
This morning to start I go for a walk with the purpose of noting how buds will break forth from the branches that have been bare for almost five months. To start I'll sit inside for the rest of the day and read and re-read Inger Christensen's alphabet
, consistently astonished by the poem end:
a group of children seeks shelter in a cave
mutely observed only by a hare
as if they were children in childhood's
fairy-tales they hear the wind tell
of the burned-off fields
but they are no children
no one carries them anymore (77)
As soon as I finish I flip backwards through the book and prepare myself to start again.
The shape of the Fibonacci sequence is the spiral shape, the shape of a shell, the shape at the end of alphabet's eleventh section sounds like:
walk down to the still
blue of the Sound shining
with evening, toss
a stone into the water,
see how the circles
even the farthest shores (32).
The spiral-line as it turns around its origin makes both a shape of repetition and of contradiction. And in this turning back, the energy of alphabet
is harnessed by the forward going energy of the sequential alphabet and the bounding pattern of Fibonacci so that by reading we are thrown into new space. Each new space is a start; each start expects discovery.
"apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist," begins alphabet
. apricot trees exist: the outside circumference of the shell, like the poem at its widest point, holds the reverberations and also exact repetitions of its own history, ever turning in on itself; we feel this when entire lines from the poem's early stages are spliced into the sequence at later points: "bracken exists: and blackberries; blackberries;" (12) "cicadas exist; chicory, chromium," (13) "days exist, days and death; and poems/ exist; poems days death" (14). I start by going outside for a long walk or I start by staying inside and finding a piece of paper or I start with writing one letter or with one word and each word I put there on the sheet and thereafter is repetition—each word is a fearlessness, a risk. apricot trees exist: but to continue repeating means harm may enter; if the apricot dries and become a stone (which the poem will later repeat) or if the tree blooms, existence includes extinction and now there is the possibility of losing twice, of a "re-lost paradise" (21). apricot trees exist: each day I take the same path; rote and beautiful, life-affirming, and destructive: apricot trees exist.
In the second section's sole couplet, after apricot trees and bracken and blackberries, should we be distracted by bromide preceding hydrogen, or is hydrogen to be hydrogen, the life giving, water-making force?
Existence includes extinction; in Christensen's contribution to a new nature poem the progression includes: (1) "apricot trees exist;" (4) "doves and killers exist;" (7) "guns and chemical ghettos;" (8) the "poison helicopter's humming harps above the henbane;" (10) "atom bombs exist…some 60,000 dead and/wounded in Nagasaki" (11) hydrogen bombs and "a plea to die;" (12) cobalt bombs: "there is no more to say; we kill/ more than we think/ more than we know/ more than we feel;/ there's no more/ to say; we hate; there is no more" (41).
Suddenly walking under this canopy of pines where I am used to imagining cathedrals, I want to go home; I'm tired tracing my usual steps and I long for the place I began.
In a spiral the arc of the larger circumference against the arc of the smaller do not exactly stack; in other words, codes describe nature and codes make up poems and we are endlessly wrapped in systems on systems, but be wary: they intersect.
Why not wonder, then, whether reflection works as a process meant to equal or one to work against; in alphabet
mirrors are systems of reflection that abound, both porous like the slime trail of slugs (55) and dissolved by the saltiness of the body's long story (37).
Or maybe a mirror is a better metaphor, an unreality, a dream, a way of contradicting forward moving; if we could press together the image and reflection (dream and reality) it might sound something like "snow," the third of six poems in section twelve:
is not snow at all
when it snows
not fallen from
the sky at all
and has bloomed
to be lost
in real snow
which is June snow
in flower and seed
when you need never die (35).
Lastly, it is important to mention the voice of the poet in the poem, the tenderness with which this voice is turned toward the earth. "love exists, love exists/ your hand a baby bird so obviously tucked/ into mine, and death impossible to remember," (26) begins section eleven. One page back the "I" has entered for the first time, but only after the horrible recollection of atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; she enters humbly, standing in the kitchen peeling potatoes while the tap is running and outside the children's shouting drowns out the song of the birds. Inger Christensen's is the poet-voice I admire—the voice simultaneously pulled by poem-math and independent, both song-maker and implicated by song's resonance on earth.
It feels to me that the risk in writing is in honestly seeing the world, sinking into its complex system, but with the mind to be taken away. Existence includes extinction. By the end of the poem the dreamers have dreams on top of their skin. I wonder if I were to travel the shape of a spiral into the earth with discovery as my goal, would I know it when I saw it, would I be brave enough to catch it, to recognize it, even if it were right there sticking on top of my skin. To see the unreal on top of the real is a reflexive act; discovery is inexplicable, a kind of grace—I think. My favorite lines of alphabet
are when Christensen writes: "That's how I've imagined/ being able to imagine." I know I couldn't have started the essay here. I'm sitting at home writing, and at the widest point there is the urge to say: I'm done. But then, there is the stronger urge to start again and again, to say the most essential thing: apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist.* * *Joshua CoreyI Say a Flower: Avant-Garde Pastoral, or the Nature of Writing
If I refer to language as a natural resource, I have already misled you. To refer to clean air or clean water or arable earth as "natural resources" is to imply that they are somehow separate from us, that they do not surround and envelop us, that we could live without them. The same is true of language; but it is also true that just like air, water, and earth, language can become polluted, unusable, uninhabitable. Sometimes their abuse goes hand in hand, as in the case of George W. Bush's infamous "Clear Skies Initiative." But more often than not we separate our thinking about language from our thinking about nature. Poets especially have been guilty of this, using language as a means to access nature or an idea of nature that somehow serves the poet's self-transcendence. If ecology means an attitude toward nature that decenters the human being and insists on seeing our lives as components of a larger organism, then I want to consider the possibility of a poetic ecology that is similarly oriented not toward the needs of isolated individuals (much less institutions or corporations) but toward the needs of the whole organism: that is, language as the transcendental precondition for human being as such. For that reason I am committed to the idea of the avant-garde—a category rarely if ever associated with what we usually think of as "nature writing." In her book Dreamworld and Catastrophe
, Susan Buck-Morss describes the desired effect of the avant-garde artwork as follows: "What counts is that the aesthetic experience teach us something new about our world, that it shock us out of moral complacency and political resignation, and that it take us to task for the overwhelming lack of social imagination that characterizes so much of cultural production in all its forms." Where the pastoral meets the avant-garde, I believe we can emend that sentence to read "that it takes us to task for the overwhelming lack of social and ecological imagination that characterizes so much of cultural production." The expansion of imagination is not, fundamentally, a question of new subject matter but a question of form. The poetry that can teach us, shock us, and take us to task will do so not by recovering nature in poetry but by recovering the nature of poetry: as language wild in the streets of our sociality.
When we speak today of the "nature poem," we are still likely to be speaking of poetry modeled on the Wordsworthian, Romantic sublime. The poet inserts him or herself into a landscape, looks out into it, and re-encounters that same self, refreshed by its momentary contemplation of the nonhuman. The spectacle of nature offers consolation, comfort, and an affirmation of the speaker's unique subjectivity. There is barely any distance to travel between Wordsworth's "The Daffodils" and virtually any poem of Mary Oliver's you would care to name. As Oliver writes in "Morning Poem":
there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —
Whether or not we agree with this sentiment will depend more upon our own existing presuppositions about the relationship between external nature (in Oliver's shorthand, "earth") and our inner nature (the "beast") than it will upon the vigor or strangeness of Oliver's language. In fact I would describe Oliver's poetry generally as a kind of Wordsworthian shorthand, through which she ventures out into the landscape to discover exactly what she expects to find—herself. This is a formal problem as much as it is an ethical one: Oliver's plain poetic speech, meant to serve as a marker of both accessibility and authenticity, represses the strangeness and vitality of language beyond its usefulness as a resource. Her language gestures at wildness, tries to terrify you like a lion at the end of a leash—but it is tame, and we never lose sight of the lion tamer's whip and chair. In their labored attempts to reveal capital-T Truth and capital-N Nature, Oliver's poems instead present us with predigested pieties with all the comforts of home. Nature is concealed, the self—an isolated self—revealed. The Lucretian swerve of nature and the physis or self-becoming of language are quietly suppressed.
Against "nature writing" as such I oppose the postmodern pastoral: poetry which, in its obvious artifice, is actually much closer to providing an actual experience of wilderness than the transparently "natural" language that disturbs nothing. Immanuel Kant describes the pleasure of natural beauty as deriving from the sense of encountering a design whose purpose we cannot fathom: "purposivness without purpose." Before it can mean anything to a botanist a tulip is, and it is that isness that astonishes and delights us. We do not need to ask what the tulip means for it to have its effect on us. When Mary Oliver tells us about the peonies, she's doing exactly that: telling us about them, and telling us how we ought to feel: in short, what they mean [refer to handout]. Compare "Peonies" to one of Louis Zukofsky's 80 Flowers
No blanch witloof handbound dry
heart to racks a comb
lion's-teeth thistlehead golden-hair earth nail
flower-clock up-by-pace dandle lion won't
dwarf lamb closes night season
its long year dumble-dor bumbles
cure wine blowball black fall's-berry
madding sun mixen seeded rebus
Zukofsky's credentials as a nature poet may appear to be pretty weak: he lived his whole life in New York City and was never part of any environmental movement that I know of. His notoriously thorny writing, rife with intertextuality, puns, and manic energy, is about as far as you can get from the earnest simplicity that we associate with contemporary nature poetry. He was not particularly interested in either rural life or the concern for conservation we associate with organizations like the Sierra Club. Yet I get more dandelion from "Dandelion" than I get peony from "Peonies." Zukofsky's "flower" inscribes itself on our nerves with a language that manages to be precise and unfamiliar at the same time. Before it sends us to the dictionary after the meaning of words like "witloof" (an endive), "dumble-dor" (a bumblebee), and "mixen" (a compost heap or dungpile), "Dandelion" makes a sound, echoing with traces of meaning unpacked from the image of the flower joined with its name. This "Dandelion" is a "seeded rebus": a puzzle in which pictures and symbols are used to make up a word, and Zukofsky's poem wants its words to strike you as immediately as pictures do. His poetics radically extends the conflation of word with natural object suggested by Whitman's Leaves of Grass
—the poet who further insisted that "This is no book / Who touches this touches a man." Language matters because language is
matter: for Zukofsky, language is one face of the Spinozan divine substance from which all being derives. If language is a picture that holds us captive, as Wittgenstein suggests, Zukofsky's poem at least refracts that picture so that it appears to us as it might through a bee's multifaceted eyes, exploding possibilities for pollination.
Zukofsky's stubbornly linguistic imagination suggests an ecology for words: a desire to present them, if not in their natural habitat, then at least with their history intact: their roots, their flowers and seeds, all visible. The American poet who has taken this notion the furthest is probably Ronald Johnson, whose magnificent long poem ARK
is both a Poundian intertextual collage and a garden of linguistic play. His early poem "Shake, Quoth the Dove House," lays out a poetic program for the blending of language and life, elaborating on Heidegger's claim that "man dwells poetically on the earth":
This is the Garden, where all is a poet's
topiary. Where even the trees
shall have tongues, green aviaries,
to rustle at his will.
And as I sit here, my pipe
alight, coos like a turtle-dove in the wood—
its smoke a live-oak, in still air.
Where the smokes curl up, the moss hangs down:
let us call it Arden
& live in it! (Selected Poems 3)
Playful, lyrical, crammed with exuberant images of light and seeing, Johnson's poetry constitutes the most complete pastoral retreat imaginable; his socius
is intimate and indirect, derived as much from Frank Baum's Oz books as it is from the company of naturalists, painters, and fellow poets like Zukofsky, Lorine Niedecker, Jonathan Williams, and Charles Olson. But a more expansive social imagination can be found in the work of contemporary avant-garde pastoralists as diverse as Eleni Sikelianos, Donald Revell, and Lisa Jarnot (it is parenthetically worth noting that some of the most vital and interesting work with pastoral today is being done by Canadians such as Lisa Robertson, Steve McCaffrey, and Christopher Dewdney). These poets have little in common when it comes to verse technique or specific aesthetic goals: they are not a "school." They do not approach nature in the same way: some are invested in empirical and scientific naturalism, while others are more fascinated by the idea of nature as a force for the destabilization of ideology. All, however, demonstrate an acute consciousness of the ways in which nature and culture are inextricably implicated in one another. Their sometimes thorny, sometimes deceptively simple language serves as a site of mediation (in Leo Marx's terms, a "middle landscape") between wilderness and civilization. In their work, "pastoral" does not connote a particular landscape or subject matter: their Arcadia is their language, a retreat from the imperatives of proposition and production, a powerful renewable resource with which new social and environmental possibilities might be imagined, even built.