Friday, June 13, 2008

Further Notes on Poetic Ecologies

16 May 2008

A poet's talk by Jack Collom kicks off the day. "I think nature is made of fruitful contradictions." The structure of trees, the structure of poems—"rivertrees." The poem flows in like a river, branches out like a tree. Xylem refers to the structural hardness of wood but it is also a conduit for liquid. Quotes Darwin: "The greatest amount of life can be supported by the greatest diversification of structure."

"It's okay to be partly mechanical. Otherwise you couldn't walk! Downplay 'meaning' a bit."

- "Nature is everthing and something."
- "It's the ocean culture floats in."
- "It's what's not built."
- "Oooooh!"
- "It's a rose and it's a photographed rose."
- "It's the desire to smash nature to bits."

A poem in its entirety:
Nature's too slow.
People get
"The shockingly vast gulf between time and moment."

In normal descriptive writing we tend to collage in labels. "But the things needn't be entities wearing badges." "We don't so much see things as recognize things." A definition for metaphor: "essence revealed by indirection." "Writing description is a process of circumventing data per se." "It takes imagination to see what's in front of you, to avoid using labels."

"Help to shift our reverence energy into activism." "Political poems [are] compassionate noise."

Wonderful word: spandrel. Refers to the space between two arches, but Collom uses it to describe the variances in a system.

Finishes with a long, sad, astonished poem, "Passage," about the destruction of the passenger pigeon. In the Q&A he makes an appealing distinction regarding Darwin: that he thinks diversity and mutation—the theory of expansion in Darwin—is more significant than natural selection. Mentions McKenzie Wark as originator of a phrase, "third nature." Says "second nature" originates with Cicero.

Franca Bellarsi, the conference organizer (a very sweet soul) asks if Collom's theory of language as second nature is a challenge to or rejection of deconstruction, poststructuralism, et al. Collom: there are lots of contradictory truths in nature, implying there's no necessary conflict between these positions. "Multiple truths concurrently operational." Pound's Chinese writing visual-onomatopoetic and arbitrary.

Where things are coming from is more important than what they point to.

Good stuff. Jack's a very appealing character: I didn't know his work before this but shall seek it out now.

Mid-morning panel on pastoral. My paper, "Tansy City: Charles Olson and the Prospects for Avant-Pastoral" is first. I won't say more about that now.

Adam Dickinson gives a paper on Erin Moure's "deterritorialized pastoral" in a newish book of hers: Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person, which is a kind of translation from Pessoa/Caeiro. Combines Pessoa's pastoral landscape with the geographical facts of the city of Toronto's burial and entombment of its brooks and streams. This heuristic combination, Adam says, is a form of 'pataphysics, which suggests a critical-playful attitude toward the limits of scientific language in conventional ecopoetry.

Talks about ecopoetry's emphasis on referentiality and realism, and its concomitant neglect of postmodernism. "Realism"-->turn to science. Glen A. Love says in Practical Ecocriticism that scientific ecology can "reel us in when we've gone too far." But as Adam says, "If there's science that imagines itself as poetry, what can we then make of poetry that imagines itself to be science?"

Cites Christian Bok's take on 'pataphysics—that it makes weak arguments stronger through the deterritorialization of scientific procedures.

I'd say then that a binary between Romanticism and referential realism continues to obtain in our ecopoetic discourse. I'd argue that the weakness of the latter is in its turn from the imagination's capabilities of affect—that form of knowledge won't change our behavior, as scientific knowledge about the lethality of smoking has largely failed to persuade people to quit.

Moure's is a practice of ecstatic translation or "transelation." She adopted, in her words, "preposterous and excessive" constraints for her project.

Angela M. Leonard gives a paper on African-American gravesites and how visiting them complicates W.E.B. DuBois' notion of "double consciousness." The focus is on "mourners who return to environments." The "syndetic" reading of gravesites—"memory work" that extracts contradictory materials which must be accepted without being resolved.

DuBois: double consciousness creates "moral hesitancy" in both black and white Americans.

Jonathan Skinner is last with a presentation on constraints and procedures in pastoral poetry. He reminds us that the "ouvroir" of Oulipo refers colloquially to a sewing circle. The move from constraint toward procedure—"a restraint on the task of writing itself."

Authors/works mentioned included Alexander "Eck" Finlay's Mesostic Herbarium; Stephen Ratcliffe (whose constraints in Real include a) something he sees out the window; b) something that happened yesterday; something from Woolf's To the Lighthouse); Zukofsky's 80 Flowers as a "species saturation project".

Ecocriticism demands that you know what you're talking about.

"...constraint as a way of taming the unconscious." Ethical implications of Noulipo: "The constraint is a procedure for the distribution of agency."

17 May 2008

Barely wake up in time for the last panel (2:30 PM!) on poetry and science after a night's carousing with Jonathan and Robin Purvis. Madhur Anand talks about Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity as literary analogies to ecological ambiguities. She uses Ashbery poems as demonstrations of the types.

The environment functions like a metaphor, or at least a zone of ambiguity, because it connects human activities to the nonhuman (and of course is also the scene of human-to-human interaction).

"Deterministic chaos" refers to persistent and consistent chaos and variation—chaos regularized. Random vs. chaotic dynamics—the latter can have an intrinsic stability. "Strange attractors." An increase in diversity creates more stability. "Stochastic resonance."

Empson's "vaguely imagined forces" that hold a poem together --> "emergent property" in biology refers to what holds a system together, i.e. the movement of flocks of birds that depend upon no single bird's decisions or agency. (Some nice video here of flocks of starlings.)

Poems and scientific models both get criticized for their ambiguities, but it's a necessary space for creativity.

What is poetic truth's relation to testability and the falsified?

Lucille Lang Day, a physician, on "Poetry, Ecology, and the Human Brain." Mentions an anthropologist named Roy Rappaport who theorizes that religion evolved as a means of organizing groups.

Music and singing may have preceded grammar and words—or rather a poetic grammar/syntax (rhyme, alliteration, etc.) came first. (Kristeva's semiotics?)

"The human brain is hardwired for poetry and religion, but not science."

Day claims that poetry could be a useful way for conveying scientific information and attitudes, since it's a more basic mode of communication. I have my doubts about this. Or rather, she's half right: poetry could sacralize scientific apprehensions that our senses cannot perceive. But poetry is not simple, or at least not all poetry. I'm too committed to the idea of poetry as a mode of cognition to accept its demotion to a mode of rhetoric—which seems to be what she's suggesting.

The most compelling example of a successful transfer or endowment of a natural space with sacred energy is the 9/11 memorial forest, in which the names of the dead have been tied to the branches of trees. What if every citizen gave his or her name to a tree or some other bit of biome?

The other problem with Day's argument is poetry's staggering unpopularity—it's a lousy vehicle for propaganda. Her argument that scientists themselves could make use of poetry seems more useful. But that instrumentalizes poetry, too—suggesting that it might foster intuition in scientists to make them more creative and efficient in finding solutions to our problems. I worry this line of thinking leaves everything in the hands of specialists and continues to disempower ordinary people.

Mari-Lou Rowley, a poet-physicist, presents a talk called "Ecopoetics as Enactivist Poetics."

Disturbing news: the very shape of cloud crystals is changing with the climate. Dehydration of the upper atmosphere accelerates warming, because water vapor mediates solar radiation.

Twenty percent of aerosols are generated by cooking meat.

Most of the poetry panels I've attended which demonstrate much in the way of theoretical vigor have been dominated by men. Here we have a panel full of scientists, and they're all women.

"Living smaller means not having less, but not wanting more." Enactivism: "The world is not what we observe, but what we do."

Bio-semiotics: the sign rather than the molecule becomes the basic unit with which life is described. "Aboutness," "contextual recognition."

Part of our crisis at this moment stems from the ignorant devaluation of poetry and science—I feel both have become marginal discourses, in America at least.

Ambiguity can be used as a weapon—consider the politicians who say we can't act on global warming because "certainty" is unachievable.

The final plenary address is given by Andrew McMurray, introduced as a poststructuralist thinker about Thoreau and ecocriticism.

"The world is about once again to become a very large place."

Intuition, he says, gets more respect in the sciences than the humanities, which depend too much upon "pseudo-rigor" (theory built upon theorists). "Blinded by an excess of vision." Our inability to see the horror of the end of our living world.

"I intuit a connection between well-chosen words and a world worth living in." "You can't get there [the world] from here [poetry]." Yet we must.

Frederic Jameson's "Metacommentary": start from the need for interpretation. Why do we need to interpret in the first place? "The unnaturalness of the hermeneutic situation."

Montaigne: the process of thought (intuition) is more important than what we we think (tuition—that's Emerson).

Ideas are wedges that choose and discard. The realist wedge says some language is better accommodated to the world than others. This view predominates in ecocriticism.

Wedge #2: Some texts and poets offer us better examples of such language—the "green canon"—which ignores literature as a totality.

Dana Phillips: ecocriticism as realism becomes an umpire, judging what's "green" or not.

The ineluctable logic of realism: a flower is more mimetic of nature than any text.

The second wave of ecocriticism orients on place—"environmentality" wherever it can be found. McMurray wants to go further, to "ride madly off in all directions." "All literature is environmental literature." "The recovery of objects of no ethical concern" ought to be the goal of ecocriticism—its objects being "the signifiers of the nonhuman world."

Ecocriticism follows feminism, African-American criticism, etc. Each discourse must move from identification (of gendered thinking, racist thinking) to metatheory. So a book that doesn't mention race is still symptomatic. Quotes Marianne Moore: "Omissions are not accidents."

Political criticism as a model for ecocriticism: it begins with a basic assumption that there is a Real, yet these politics have the power of changing what is real.

The physical world—the "environmental actual"—precedes and includes Marx's horizon, history (that is, of the evolution of the means of production). Production is only the proximate cause of history. "Modes of production have themselves been reified," whether in terms of harnessing production (Communism) or releasing it (capitalism).

But how does the environmental actual get into the poem? A John Muirean view of the literary act: what we select ends up pulling everything else along with it.

The key strategic move comes in decentering man—the posthuman totality. Perhaps utopia is no longer the point? Lawrence Buell: embedment in spatio-temporality is more fundamental than ideology.

Calls for a "synoptic decoding of texts with the environmental actual as the horizon." Presents two preceding modes of synoptic interpretation for comparison: medieval Christian hermeneutics and Jamesonian Marxism. Clever correspondences between the four hierarchical levels of the former (from the basic literal to allegorical, moral, and finally anagogical readings) and of the latter (in which the author-function, social contradictions, class struggle, and History are the corresponding categories).

In "ecocritical holism" the four categories of interpretation are:
- authorial (thematics, style)
- discursive (words, metaphors)
- political (symbolic acts, ideologemes)
- environmental (functional constraints, epistemology, history)

Systems theory, he claims, is a broader and more "generous" governing theory than Marxism.

McMurray picks on Ashbery for working on the discursive level alone, while Frost and Stevens are celebrate for working every level. This hardly seems fair. I'm not sure he's fair to Jameson either. I think many contemporary poets are not simply producing allegories of social conditions, but are instead active investigators and interpreters in their own right, whose work can help us recognize and navigate the social totality. The next level then would be poetry that helps us navigate the environmental actual, of which the social is only a component.

"People and their systems establish themselves against something," and that "something" defines that system.

Prophecies either disaster and collapse or the total technologization of the earth: shows a slide of Coruscant from the Star Wars movies. Star Wars or The Road Warrior: these are our alternatives?


Marina said...

hi Josh,

I enjoy your writing. I am an artist in NY and wanted to quote Jack Collum in an essay on invasive species. The poem in question is the one you quote as

Nature's too slow.
People get

Where is this from? I can find no cite other than here.


Marina Zurkow

Unknown said...

Well, as it happens, I can direct you immediately to the source: it's Collom's poem "Red-Shouldered Hawks," and you can find the quoted lines on page 372 of the hot-off-the-presses anthology The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral, edited by G.C. Waldrep and yours truly, and available for purchase at!

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