Ecopoetics: The Language of Nature, the Nature of Language

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Ecocritics and other literary scholars interested in the environment have tended to examine writings that pertain directly to nature and to focus on subject matter more than expression. In this book, Scott Knickerbocker argues that it is time for the next step in ecocriticism: scholars need to explore the figurative and aural capacity of language to evoke the natural world in powerful ways. Ecopoetics probes the complex relationship between artifice and the natural world in the work of modern American poets—in particular Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, and Sylvia Plath. These poets relate to nature as a deep wellspring of meaning, although they all avoid using language the way most nature writers do, merely to reflect or refer directly to the world. Each of these poets, in his or her own distinct way, employs instead what Knickerbocker terms sensuous poesis, the process of rematerializing language through sound effects and other formal devices as a sophisticated response to nonhuman nature. Rather than attempt to erase the artifice of their own poems, to make them seem more natural and thus supposedly closer to nature, the poets in this book unapologetically embrace artifice—not for its own sake but in order to perform and enact the natural world. Indeed, for them, artifice is natural. In examining their work, Knickerbocker charts a new direction for ecocriticism.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-198-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION The Language of Nature, the Nature of Language
    (pp. 1-18)

    My thirteen-month-old-son Rowan reaches out from my back to a towering hemlock and attempts to echo my latest denotation, “tree.” I am huffing up the basalt-riddled trail along Multnomah Creek to the top of Larch Mountain, pointing to the flora that I recognize and reciting the common names of wildflowers, ferns, and trees to the boy on my shoulders. His sudden, small utterances into this ancient grove above Oregon’s Columbia Gorge startle me. He can walk but not yet talk, at least not in recognizable English. These sounds, however, are clearly meant to refer, like my “tree” with which they...

    (pp. 19-55)

    According to most of Wallace Stevens’s prominent critics, the poet is anything but ecologically oriented. Helen Vendler, for example, describes Stevens as expressing three “large manners” in his poetry: his “ecstatic idiom” of secular and earthy joys, a “despairing” mood that “anatomizes a stale and withered life,” and a “tentative, diffident, and reluctant search for a middle route between ecstasy and apathy” (On Extended Wings13). For Vendler, the “true” Stevens most often expresses the “middle route,” and it is this same Stevens who is unmoved by the material particularities of the natural world: “The lively things of this world—...

    (pp. 56-83)

    Insofar as environmentally inclined poetry is based in fidelity to a real natural world, any ecocritical account of Elizabeth Bishop must surely start with her “famous eye”—her extremely close attention to the visual details of the natural world. This familiar characterization of Bishop alone makes her an obvious choice for a study in ecopoetics. Unlike Wallace Stevens, for whom reality is most often figured abstractly and obliquely, Bishop depicts nature as palpably particular and “real”; she mistrusted extreme aestheticism that would raise art above nature: “I remember in the 5th or 6th grade, inpréciswriting, the teacher confounded...

    (pp. 84-122)

    Utter the phrase “contemporary ecopoet,” and most people will immediately think not of Richard Wilbur but of Gary Snyder, and for good reasons. Not only have critics categorized Snyder this way, but also Snyder refers to himself as an ecologist (as well as a student of anthropology, literature, Native American mythology, and Zen Buddhism). His poems go beyond referencing objects of the natural world to engage in specific ecological concepts such as species interconnection, and he explicitly speaks out, in his poems and essays, against the destruction of natural habitat. Snyder does not shrink from the public role of environmental...

    (pp. 123-158)

    Despite the New Criticism’s warning against the “intentional fallacy,” poststructuralism’s assertion that the author is “dead,” and the New Historicism’s emphasis on ideology and historical context, much of the literary criticism devoted to Sylvia Plath has relied heavily on her biography. This is partly due to Plath’s unfortunate categorization as part of the “confessional” school of poets, whose work, in reaction against the impersonality and irony of the high modernists, instead seems to draw directly on the poet’s “real” life, particularly his or her inner emotional torment. Such a view of Plath is still ubiquitous despite her own dismissive description...

  9. CONCLUSION Organic Formalism and Contemporary Poetry
    (pp. 159-186)

    The poems of Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, and Sylvia Plath clearly demonstrate the double nature of poetic form, which both restrains language from imposing itself on the natural world and reveals meaningful entanglements with that world. For all of these poets, the most meaningful contact with nature occurs through form, not by abolishing form. Artifice, whether artistic or technological, comes naturally to humans; moreover, artifice is what connects us to the rest of nature. Their poems (and those of Dickinson and Hopkins before them), in their own ways, employ what I have termed “sensuous poesis” to perform the...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 187-192)
  11. Works Cited
    (pp. 193-200)
  12. Index
    (pp. 201-203)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 204-206)