Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Nature Poetry

The author, at one with Nature

I just finished editing an excellent review for CNQ of the recent anthology Open Wide a Wilderness: Canadian Nature Poems. The reviewer--spoiler alert--complains that editor Nancy Holmes' criteria for inclusion aren't made sufficiently clear and that, because there appear to be no defined criteria, the anthology has a bit of a kitchen-sink feel to it. As invariably happens in discussion surrounding anthologies, other readers of the book think, far from being too inclusive, Holmes has left out too many things. There's some interesting back and forth between one such critic and Holmes, here. There has of course never been an anthology that pleases everyone, but I have to say, I find the OWaW roster--full disclosure: a poem of mine is in the book--remarkably non-partisan.

Another question, of course, is whether it's useful to think of poetry in terms of sub-genres or whether this is an arbitrary act of academic taxonomy--fencing off the wilderness, as it were. To say nothing, on the part of self-identifying nature-poets (or "eco-poets" if the old terminology feels too Romantic for your liking), of the desire to corner a niche market. Alex Porco asked me recently what it means to me to be, at times, a nature poet. (I'm not sure if he read my satirical take on this topic or not.) I tend to follow Raymond Carver's line about love poetry on this one: all poems are nature poems. (A point of view that the reviewer I mentioned in the opening of this post would no doubt find maddening, which is perhaps why she has a PhD and I don't.) I had a talk with Robyn Sarah--who is included in both OWaW and another recently published anthology of "eco-poetry" called Regreen--about this recently. Not surprisingly, we agreed that generic concerns about poetry are at best irrelevant and at worst, when they are foregrounded or provide the impetus for writing, tend to produce writing that is notably sub-poetic. If there's far more "eco" than "poetry" to be found in most writing of the genre, it is precisely because it is generic. And let's face it, no matter how ancient-forest-friendly or post-consumer-recycled a book might be, it is still not a carbon-neutral production. The most ecologically responsible thing to do is not publish it at all.

Poetry, after all, as Auden famously said, makes nothing happen and I can guarantee you one thing: "eco-poetry" is bound to be read by people already converted to its messages and aware of its issues. In the unlikely event that anyone who happens not to be in line with the mores of the day--reduce, reuse, recycle, buy local, think global--comes across an "eco-poem," said text is extraordinarily unlikely to change their mind or even raise their consciousness about the issues. So, if we're going to commit our poems to print and fossil-fueled distribution, the best, most committed thing we can do is not to hammer out dutiful diatribes in verse about the Tar Sands, but to try and avoid publishing poems, whatever their subject matter and style, whose ineluctable destiny is curbside pickup.

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