An Ecopoetics of the Future
Lately, a lot of people seem to be turning to poetry to work through their thoughts and feelings around the climate crisis. There’s a very specific way nature has been used in poetry for a long time, which is very symbolic and focused on the aesthetics of the natural world as some kind of perfect, untouched source of images. This feels to me like an appropriation of sorts, which ignores the reality of the natural world and our responsibilities towards it, as well as the fact that we’re complicit in a very calculated and systematic destruction of the very places we romanticise.
Of course, there’ve been poets writing with environmental themes for a long time, but the school specifically dubbed ‘eco-poetry’ has only been around since the early 2000s, with a few key works of ecocriticism and anthologies of poems claiming the term. Some ecopoets insist on a very rigorous set of criteria for the subgenre, such as John Shoptaw in his essay in Poetry, “Why Ecopoetry?”: “The second way in which an ecopoem is environmental is that it is ecocentric, not anthropocentric.” To earn the label, he says, a poem must not prioritise human interests. The distinction seems small, but it makes a big difference. If a poem can only be an ecopoem if it disregards human interests, it sets us apart as Other to the environment. It suggests that the devastation we inflict moves in one direction only, outwards from ourselves, and that the impacts are all in non-human spaces.
The reality is that we live within the environment. We are not separate from nature, no matter how much it can sometimes seem like it when you live in a city. The perpetuation of that idea is incredibly dangerous, as it allows us to believe that, in the years to come, as the earth warms, we’ll be fine. It’s become clear that sympathy for the planet’s other inhabitants is not enough to inspire change within our (colonial, capitalist) human systems. For us to implement other, less damaging ways to live, we have to recognise that within our lifetimes, our lives will be worsened—some far more than others, but everyone’s in some way. So, what’s the point of an ecopoetics that focuses only on human action and non-human consequences? It is too late for that.
It also shows a blatant and dangerous disregard for the indigenous peoples who live with the land rather than just on the land. It’s important to recognise the necessity of work like Stacey Teague’s poem “toitū te whenua”, which is a decolonisation poem and a climate justice poem, because the two things are inseparable:
sacred soil settler guilt
the past speaks grief the water speaks pollution
the public sings in the colonial landscape
the womb of the earth is full of protest
As essa may ranapiri writes in their poem from the same collection (Te Rito o te Harakeke, edited by Rangatahi o te Pene, Hana Pera Aoake, Sinead Overbye, Michelle Rahurahu Scott and essa may ranapiri), “where we stand is where we will always / stand / on the whenua that we are / and are one with.” Tangata whenua are part of the land, and so there can be no ecopoetics without tangata whenua.
With the current trend towards environmental poetry, it seems important to ask what we want from this kind of work. One of my favourite poems about the environment is Vanessa Crofskey’s “There’s Real Manuka Honey in Heaven” from issue 7 of Starling, which includes this brilliant image:
a global conference of bees will be livestreamed strapping on
army helmets khaki stripes and matching jet packs
then flying off into the stratosphere in tiny astronautical booties
The poem ends with “the tuatara [singing] a eulogy to the end of the anthropocene” and the cockroaches, who we all know can live through anything, “[waiting] for spring.” It’s the perfect mix of humour and very real devastation, without just saying the same things that everybody else has already said. The world in Crofskey’s poem is the complete opposite from the idyllic landscape of the Romantic or pastoral poets, and humans are very much present. Otherwise how could we take any kind of responsibility for the damage?
Another approach is that of Joy Harjo, whom I doubt James Shoptaw would call an ‘ecopoet’, though hers is some of the most moving writing about the natural world I’ve ever come across. In “For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet”, Harjo tells us to “Be respectful of the small insects, birds and animal people / who accompany you. / Ask their forgiveness for the harm we humans have brought / down upon them.” In “Talking with the Sun”, she writes, “Humans are vulnerable and rely on the kindnesses of the / earth and the sun; we exist together in a sacred field of meaning.” Harjo isn’t only writing about non-human interests, because in her poems human and non-human interests are one and the same.
I’m interested in a school of poetry that doesn’t restrict or close off possibilities for writing about the environment, while also acknowledging that every piece of writing being written or read now exists in a world in crisis. Like humans, poems do not exist in a vacuum. Everything we read is informed in some way by our lived experiences, and the writer’s lived experiences, and since everybody shares the very big experience of living on Earth, it seems vital to recognise that in the poems we read and write. Moving forward, as we continue to make sense of the natural world through poetry, we must keep asking the question—what do we want from this work?
Ash Davida Jane
Ash Davida Jane is a poet and bookseller from Pōneke. Some of her recent work can be found in Starling, Peach Mag, Scum, The Spinoff, and Stasis. Her second book, How to Live with Mammals, is due to be published by VUP in 2021.