For a long time, ecopoetics—or as Jonathan Skinner, founding editor of ecopoetics, a journal that played an influential role in bringing environment poetry to the forefront, puts it, “applied poetics”—was an issue tacked on to poetry conferences and literary festivals. No longer, though. Greening The Earth, an anthology edited by K. Satchidanandan and Nishi Chawla, stands testimony to the urgency felt by about 250 poets the world over.
Derived from Greek roots, ecopoetics amalgamates oikos, roughly translated as home or family, with poïesis, the act of making, creating or producing. Ecopoetry is not about Wordsworthian-styled romantic poems. Instead, it is poetry that urges poets and readers to think of Earth as home and then critically and creatively consider the complex relationships, risks and responsibilities that comes with this.
Various elements of the environment register in unique ways. There are softer, subtler and hopeful poems on peaches, ants, seagulls, nests, the waggle dance of the bees, and stronger, more urgent, even angry poems such as Drought On The Navajo Reservation by Gail Entrekin, Unburying The Bird by Toi Derricotte, and Hurricane Irma by Fan Ogilvie. While American poets form a huge chunk of the contributors and some fine Indian poets are missed, the editors try to maintain diversity in selection, ranging from emerging to seasoned, coming from various regions and working in different languages.
The bulldozers, the rifles, the soaring stream of smoke, the wheels that crush and churn, the harm that is done to the natural world are on stark display. Juliana Spahr, an ecologically devoted poet, believes that “if a contemporary nature poem leaves its readers in a contemplative mood...it risks being complacent…even becomes immoral.”
Mark Spitzer’s Plastic Plasma Paradox questions human guile and the facade of innocence: And we wonder why/we’re all dying/from what we’re all dying from. When H.S. Shivaprakash describes humans as the “sly magicians of the market” or Marc Vincent admits, “everywhere you walk you cast dirty shadows,” the poetry becomes a critique of the delusional and often self-destructive workings of a hyper-capitalist society.
Environmental concerns such as rising temperatures, species diebacks, melting ice, fraying ozone, nosediving water, and eroding soil layers have all been rehashed with a creative eye and draws interesting parallels.
Another rabbit hole ecopoets fear going down is didacticism. It is easy to dress textbook facts with elaborate wordplay and call it a poem. But knowing is certainly different from feeling: A good nature poem traverses this wide gap with ease. Poems such as A Bad Year For Tomatoes by Hiram Larew, Memories Of An Asbestos Village by Ari Sitas, Fire Reports by Igor Satanovsky and Pachyderm Refuge by Pramila Venkateswaran are charged with specific details and live longer with a reader.
Another way to create that deeply unsettling effect is to juggle line lengths, white space and language. The right-aligned, short, stout lines of Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s Kairos feel like waves lashing on the shore. Transporting readers to the seaside, its short stanzas offer them moments to contemplate their farcical actions.
John Shoptaw, an ecopoet and a luminary critic, proposes two fundamental qualities of an ecopoem in his essay for the Poetry Foundation—environmental and environmentalist. Poems such as P. Raman’s Mother or Gabriel Rosenstock’s The Isle Of Light aren’t strictly environmental and talk about memories of the poet’s mother and Varavara Rao, respectively. They could have been replaced with other ecocentric poems by these fine poets.
While explaining the “environmentalist” aspect, Shoptaw elaborates on the difference between ecocentric and anthropocentric. The superimposition of human qualities on to animals, to believe that flora and fauna feel emotions similar to us, is based on the assumption that human existence is supreme. Quite a few poems fall in this category but I would like to think of it as an inevitable faux pas as an ecopoet advances in their journey to understand the complex braiding of social, political and environmental issues.
Kinshuk Gupta is a resident doctor and is the writer of Yeh Dil Hai Ki Chor Darwaja, a book on LGBT-themed short fiction.