Crystal Koch

"A theory of the development of poetry surely will reflect poetry's origins in the body and in the growing complexity and diversity of the body. Thus the 'feeled' grows - the field on which poetry grows is the feeled . . . the felt. The veldt." (45)
                                                        -- Michael McClure Scratching the Beat Surface
In 1962 Rachel Carson's Silent Spring introduced readers to the possibility that toxins in the surrounding environment could have an affect on the interior functioning of our bodies. Writing in 1982, McClure is of an era that is not only aware of ecological instability but also sees the connection between the processes of the human body and the natural world. Poetry is concentrated in the sensual, and by engaging the human senses it centers the poetic experience in the body. In the explanation above McClure draws a parallel between emotion and nature, between the internal and the external realms that Carson speaks of. By locating sensory perception in the body, and the body in the natural world, McClure asserts that the boundaries between the experiences of the inner body and the outer body become blurred, hence the comparison between "feeled" and "field," "felt and "veldt." McClure further argues that "Poetry is biological [] an organismic, complex act of a complex creature who is both matter and flesh in a universe that is matter, and flesh, and nothing less" (138, 99). Poetry and life both originate from inside the body, and with the post-modern realization that the outer workings of the natural world affect the inner workings of the body, a link is created between poetry and the state of the environment. In this sense poetry has become perhaps the most direct means of addressing an environment in crisis.
In spite of poetry's sensory characteristics and the increasing amount of poetry centered around the environmental crisis, little attention has been paid to the issue of poetics in terms of ecocritical study. In their analysis, ecocritics have focused primarily on environmental and nature poetry, turning to the Romantics and to more contemporary poets such as Gary Snyder and Leslie Marmon Silko whose environmental ethics extend beyond their poetry. For the most part this has meant that ecopoetic analysis has confined itself to the realm of free or open verse. The problem is that in doing this ecocritics have limited themselves to a very narrow range of poetry and poetics. Considering the growing concern over environmental issues both inside and outside the academy poetry critics can no longer continue to limit themselves in this manner. What I propose is an examination of poetic verse with an emphasis on characteristics that extend beyond the realm of nature poetry or content that merely describes nature. I would argue that an ecological, or ecopoem must not only refer the reader to the natural world, it must do so in a way that is both aware of itself and of the role that humans play in natural cycles.
Gary Snyder's poem "Riprap" is an example of a free verse poem that embodies this self-reflexive quality and awareness of the natural world. Riprap, or "a cobble of stone laid on steep slick rock to make a trail for horses in the mountains," is both a real object and a metaphorical one for Snyder. Parallels are created between objects and words, the material and the metaphorical. According to Tim Dean, "This materialising of language - of which 'Riprap' is Snyder's best early example - represents the effort to link poetry to the body, to work, and thus to what is taken as the immediacy of the real" (Dean). Snyder establishes this in the first few lines when he implores the reader to
Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
                placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
                in space and time:
Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall
                riprap of things; (Snyder 404)
Rocks, like words in poetry, are "placed solid, by hands/ in choice of place." From the start the link between poetry and the physical world is made clear; however, Snyder is not just placing words, he is also locating the reader in a specific place, namely the Sierra Nevada mountains. The reader's body is located in this place through visual images and associations. The "bark, leaf, or wall" emphasize the "solidity" of things but they also allow the reader to see the physical characteristics of place. The "creek-washed stone" and "Granite" that make up the riprap at the end of the poem speak of physical location, texture, shape, and the detailed work that goes into building these trails.
The visual images throughout the rest of the poem, while indicative of the natural world are continually linked with the human element in terms of the physical and the poetic.
Cobble of milky way,
                straying planets,
These poems, people,
                lost ponies with
Dragging saddles
                and rocky sure-foot trails.
The worlds like and endless
Game of Go.
                ants and pebbles
In the thin loam, each rock a word
                a creek-washed stone
Granite: ingrained
                with torment of fire and weight
Crystal and sediment linked hot
                all change, in thoughts,
As well as things. (Snyder 404)
Poems, people, lost ponies and rocky trails are all part of this scene and its creation; all are required for the physical and the poetic "riprap" to exist. Yet after establishing this interrelation between human, poetic, and physical realms, Snyder then relates these to the larger universe. The flecks of crystalline that appear in the granite "Cobble" become the stars of the Milky Way. The perspective changes and the world is no bigger than a "Game of Go." Perspective continues to shifts nearly seven different times throughout the poem from the specific and concrete to the more cosmic and abstract. The first four lines speak of solidity and the physical placing of objects, then move to the more abstract realms of "space and time." The poem then oscillates from the "bark, leaf, or wall" of the natural world to the "straying planets" and then back to the concreteness of "lost ponies" and "Dragging saddles." In spite of this oscillation, the overall movement of the poem is from the physical body to a cosmic reality, from the immediacy of words and rocks to a larger perspective of life.
"Riprap" also provides an example of how form interacts with content. The shape of the poem imitates the edge of a wall where stones are placed in alternating rows, or the switchbacks of a trail, creating for the reader a trail of thought. The sounds of the poem contribute to this effect as well. The presence of hard sounds in words like "rock," and semi-hard consonants in words such as "Cobble," "place," "Dragging," "Game," and "Granite" make the poem seem to crunch and crackle like rocks underfoot. This further serves to locate the reader within the poem and make them aware of poetry's connection to the body, while at the same time drawing attention to the connections between the body and the universe.
The progression of the poem moves in such a way that humans, and their language, are connected with earth, stone, animals, and the universe. Yet this is not a static picture, change is always happening "in thoughts,/ As well as things." Snyder refers humans to the natural world by intertwining them, and the words they are reading, with natural objects and processes. The poem is self-reflexive in terms of form and content; it shows an awareness of humans as part of the natural world, and recognizes the fact that the natural world, while containing "solidity," is always changing.
Although published in 1959, "Riprap" is in many ways still considered the epitome of an ecological poem. Snyder demonstrates an awareness of both form and content, coupled with an understanding of the natural world and the role humans play within natural cycles. Like "Riprap," the majority of ecopoetry is associated with free or open verse because, some would argue, it allows the form of the poem to reflect its content in a way that more adequately imitates nature. In Scratching the Beat Surface McClure spends some time talking about Charles Olson and his assertion that "form is the extension of content" (85). Although McClure doesn't entirely state these two are unrelated he modifies this view, responding in his poem "Rant Block" that, "THERE IS NO FORM BUT SHAPE! NO LOGIC BUT SEQUENCE!" (86). This idea assumes that the form of the poem will always be the author's response to the content, that form and content mingle in the poetic process. There is no logic to the form of the poem - there is only the shape that is created and the sequence in which the poet reveals her subject. This can be seen as a defense of the randomness of free verse, but it can also be used as a justification for the biological aspects of formalist verse by arguing that the issue is not form versus content but the organic development of shape and sequence in response to one another.
As a test case to see how far the boundaries of ecopoetics may be extended, it may be most useful to move back in time and examine poetry that comes after the Romantics, in fact in response to their style, and before the postmodern era of ecological concern. In examining the same elements of form and structure, self-reflexivity, and awareness of the role humans play in natural cycles it becomes apparent that ecopoetic study need not be confined to the realm of free verse.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, a formalist poet of the late Modernist era, was perhaps most adept at using form to undermine established views. Published in 1934 "Epitaph for the Race of Man" is a series of eighteen sonnets in which Millay moves from a time "Long, long before the music of the Lyre" ("I"), to a point in the future in which "all the clamour that was he,/ [is] Silenced" and humans are no more than "dust among the dusts that blow" ("XVIII"). The fourth sonnet of the series is one of the most interesting in terms of ecological consciousness and self-reflexivity. It reads as follows:
O Earth, unhappy planet born to die,
Might I your scribe and your confessor be,
What wonders must you not relate to me
Of Man, who when his destiny was high
Strode like the sun into the middle sky
And shone an hour, and who so bright as he,
And like the sun went down into the sea,
Leaving no spark to be remembered by.
But no; you have not learned in all these years
To tell the leopard and the newt apart;
Man, with his singular laughter, his droll tears,
His engines and his conscience and his art,
Made but a simple sound upon your ears:
The patient beating of the animal heart. (Millay 63)
Initially, the speaker of the poem stands outside the events of the poem as Earth's scribe or confessor, yet it is implied that the speaker also realizes she is part of the processes described. She speaks of the folly of the human race in thinking it is singular like the sun, when in actuality it leaves "no spark to be remembered by." The speaker realizes that humans are not the center of the universe and that they are involved in the same creative-destructive cycles that the rest of the natural world is subject to. Yet the speaker is also aware of her involvement in this cycle, which seems to be why the Earth will not relate certain of its wonders to her in the third line.
In contrast to "Man" the Earth is presented as egalitarian, seeing all animals, including humans, in an equal light. According to the speaker the Earth does not distinguish in terms of size or importance; the Earth cannot "tell the leopard and the newt apart" not because it is blind but because for Earth they are both equally important. All earth knows is that humans are part of the whole, no different from any other animal. The Earth realizes, even if "Man" does not, that he is an animal and not a god of the sky who sheds light on the world. However, what this prevents the Earth from perceiving are those things that make human consciousness unique. "Singular laughter," "droll tears," "engines," "conscience," "art," and even this poem are nothing more than a "simple sound" upon the ears of the Earth.
There is not the same physicality or sense of location in Millay's poem that there is in Snyder's; however, there is still an awareness of human processes and biological cycles. In contrast to Snyder, Millay moves from the cosmic concerns of her "unhappy planet" to the most basic element of the body, the heart. The perspective of the poem remains fairly large until the end of the poem, where it narrows suddenly and significantly. The tone of the poem also shifts at this point from one of unhappiness, and actions that are phrased in the form of negatives, to the patience of the body.
Millay places additional emphasis on the body in her use of sound. In looking at the assonance within the lines it is interesting to note that the only words containing long "e" sounds are "be," "he," "me," "sea," and "beating." These words are placed in such a way that they are all centered toward the beginning of the poem and then culminate in the last line with "beating," with this separation adding emphasis to this word. This combination of words places an emphasis on existence; the human race, of which the speaker is part; the sea, as the origin of life; and the beating heart as the essence of life.
Millay's self-reflexivity and awareness of natural cycles, and the role humans play in them, is exceptional for a formal poet of the Modern era. In the octave, Millay demonstrates an awareness of the creative-destructive cycles within the natural world in her description of "Man" and his downfall. In pointing out the mistake of anthropocentrism, and presenting a more biocentric worldview, Millay shifts human perception and presents a vision that is focused on the body. When added to her assertion of the interconnectedness of life and the patience of the human body in the sestet, one can see the ecological awareness that makes this more than just a simple nature poem.
Poetry is the means by which humans can assert their connection the natural world by both literal and literary means. Leonard Scigaj has argued that ecopoetry's substitution of biocentrism for the anthropocentric view that have dominated our culture is one way of disrupting contemporary consumer practices. Although I would argue that by virtue of its body-centered orientation the study of ecopoetics is capable of this and much more, this view seems limited in scope. The biological nature of poetry makes it not only a tool for change, but a mirror in which we can see reflected the ways we as humans interact, perceive, and respond to our environment. It also reveals something about the desires of a population who see the faults in our current practices, desire change, and are trying to work out in words what they feel inside their bodies. These reasons alone point to a need to expand the realm of ecopoetic study and theory in a way that fully acknowledges the ability of this literal and literary body to express its sentiments in a multitude of poetic forms.


1. In his essay "Contemporary Ecological and Environmental Poetry," Leonard Scigaj discusses the influence of Derrida on contemporary ecological poetry. The environmental poets he mentions throughout the article - Berry, Rich, Snyder, Piercy, Gluck, Harjo - whether influenced by Derrida or not, are all free verse poets. It is this limited view of who and what constitutes ecological poetry that I wish to argue against.


Dean, Tim. "On 'Riprap.'" Modern American Poetry web site. 7 December 2001.

Millay, Edna St. Vincent. Wine from these Grapes. New York: Harper, 1934.

McClure, Michael. Scratching the Beat Surface. New York: Penguin, 1982.

Scigaj, Leonard. Contemporary Ecological and Environmental Poetry." ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment (Fall 1996) 3.2: 1-25.

Snyder, Gary. The Gary Snyder Reader: Prose, Poetry, and Translations. Washington D.C.: Counterpoint, 1999.

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