Green Movement Poets Analysis


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Despite this clear difference between Green movement poets and earlier nature poets, the movement has devoted much attention to these precursors. It interprets early nature poets, because of their extreme sensitivity to the environment, as having already been more responsive to grave dangers than the general public. At the conclusion of the dramatic poem Faust: Eine Tragödie, zweiter Teil (pb. 1833; The Tragedy of Faust, Part Two, 1838) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), for example, the protagonist uses demons to drain wetlands for agriculture. The project results in the death of an aged couple who will not relocate, and its digging becomes that of Faust’s own grave. Does such skepticism about technological progress (coupled with Goethe’s standing as a naturalist) make him a Green movement poet? Conversely, as an exponent of Faustian striving, was he a major voice for human domination of nature? Axel Goodbody’s Nature, Technology, and Cultural Change in Twentieth-Century German Literature: The Challenge of Ecocriticism (2007) faces the dilemma in forty-one pages on Goethe as an “ecophilosophical inspiration.” Similarly, as pioneers of Romantic nature poetry, William Wordsworth and other Lake poets are cited for anticipating the Green movement in Bryan L. Moore’s Ecology and Literature: Ecocentric Personification from Antiquity to the Twenty-first Century (2008) and Nicholas Roe’s The Politics of Nature: William Wordsworth and Some Contemporaries (2002). Other studies of precursors include Gyorgi Voros’s Notations of the Wild: Ecology in the...

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Science versus technology

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The Green movement has used science to support its arguments while attacking the devastation caused by science’s by-product, technology. For example, Snyder’s “What Happened Here Before” (1975) narrates his homestead’s history for 300 million years (described in scientific terms) but culminates with an assault on the environment by machines. This reliance on science coupled with an irritation with technology distinguishes Green poetry from its precursors. Whereas, for example, the ecopoet Wendell Berry (born 1934) has devoted numerous essays and poems to the scientifically documented problems of monoculture (single-crop agriculture), Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village (1770) is occasioned by that technology, yet almost completely ignores it, instead lamenting that nature is no longer being subdued by virtuous Christian farmers.

Even monumental discoveries very relevant to the Green movement, however, do not always slip easily into poetry. Hughes learned this by way of his poem “The Lobby Under the Carpet” (1992), inspired by a 40 percent worldwide drop in male fertility because of pollution. Hughes was so appalled by this that he sent a letter to the British prime minister urging action, yet he had to admit that the resulting poem he wrote about the statistic was not one of his best. Thereafter, he tended to shy away from such literal propagandizing in verse. Similarly, the Green poet A. R. Ammons (1926-2001) generally...

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Spirituality versus materialism

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In connecting science to the humanities, the Green movement has often adapted ideas from the world’s religions and continued their struggle against materialism. One of religion’s functions has been to interpret reality while defining the human experience, a function that in later years has also been performed by science. In this sense, religion and science have a joint function, although the major ecopoets are eclectic in their approaches to combining the two. Snyder, who loved the wilderness since his childhood, is among those (including his friend Allen Ginsberg) closely associated with Buddhism. The draw of Buddhism is that it pioneered in the protection of animals—a concern first called deep ecology by the philosopher Arne Naess in 1973. Snyder, who practiced Zen Buddhism in Japan, draws metaphors from diverse religious traditions, especially Native American beliefs. Hughes’s wide-ranging eclecticism conjoins his ecological position with many shamanic and animistic ideas. Sze frequently alludes to Daoist divination in his multifarious poems, but as a teacher at the Institute of Indian Arts (and someone once married to a Hopi), he more often refers to Native American beliefs. Native American poets such as the Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan (born 1947) and the Choctaw poet Jim Barnes (born 1933) build ecopoetic metaphors from tribal beliefs. Hogan’s “All Winter” (1988) describes her participation with all life as well as with her massacred ancestors...

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Conservationism versus postmodernism

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Green movement poets tend to ally themselves not merely with external nature but also with the unconscious depths in each person and with certain archaic spiritual approaches to both. In this large sense, the movement is conservationist: It seeks to preserve the oldest portions of the world and the mind against civilization’s attempts to bring these under conscious control. Not these goals but rather the methods employed to advance them bring the Green movement in conflict with postmodernism (a skeptical trend in the humanities since the 1960’s).

Postmodernism’s method is to argue playfully that the selfish, imperialistic world control sought by humanity, particularly since the early nineteenth century, is inherently impossible because language does not describe reality, no self exists, and everything (including gender) that seems real to people is merely a social construct. The postmodern approach is thus relatively passive, an effort to debate people into inaction (since action has proven disastrous). In contrast, Green movement poets insist that people really can know that the environment is being destroyed, and poetic words might move the masses to combat this destruction. Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild (1990) and Berry’s Standing by Words: Essays (2005) combat the postmodern position. Ammons’s poem “Construing Deconstruction” (1996) derides postmodernism. This conflict, however, does not mean that the ecopoets have a naïve faith in all language. Ammons’s book-length poem Garbage (1993), for example, admits that words often fulfill the same unintellectual function that grooming does among baboons. His poem “Essay on Poetics” (1970), however, contends that the chief problem with language comes from humanity’s separation from nature, which detaches words from the intuition of wholeness that poets derive unconsciously from their affinity with the ecosystem. The disagreement between the Green movement and postmodernism resembles that between Buddhist meditation masters and Buddhist theoreticians: The former (like the Green movement poets) have felt that they encountered reality, whereas the latter (like the postmoderns) have emphasized the importance of exposing the unreality of all appearances. In other words, the disagreement may not just reflect the ecopoets’ dedication to action but also derive from the meditative contemplation of nature common in ecopoetry.

Ecofeminism versus patriarchy

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

This tension between conservationism and postmodernism also colors that intertwining of ecology and feminism: ecofeminism. Ecofeminists see a similarity between male domination of nature and of women. “Litter. Wreckage. Salvage” (1988), by Daphne Marlatt (born 1942), for instance, depicts woman as a depreciated commodity who can gain self-knowledge by identifying with a polluted world. Comparably, in Hogan’s “Bees in Transit: Osage County” (1985), she parallels Osage women murdered for oil and a beehive destroyed in commercial transportation. Such a matching tends to make postmodern feminists nervous, because it might be construed as positing an essential similarity between all women and “mother nature.” Postmodern feminists abhor this idea because it imposes an old-fashioned limitation on each woman’s right to construct her own sexual identity. They tend to object to such images as the skirted Earth in Sleeping in the Forest (1978) by Mary Oliver. Whereas postmodernism shies away from being locked in battle (or anything else), ecofeminism feels the need to struggle against patriarchal domination of the earth, as in Hogan’s “Naming of Animals.” It condemns the arrogance of the biblical Adam in imposing his names on animals and on Eve. Indeed, in a 1990 interview with Patricia Smith, Hogan noted how non-Indian culture often compares women and Native Americans to animals.

Only gradually did male ecopoets embrace ecofeminism. In Riprap, Snyder is writing not only before the ecological movement but also before the modern feminist movement. For example, Riprap’s chauvinist “Praise for Sick Women” begins with lines that might be interpreted as meaning that women cannot think. Diane di Prima (born 1934) responded with her poem “The Practice of Magical Evocation,” playfully chiding Snyder’s sexism. Subsequently, however, Snyder embraced the new political awareness. In his preface to Peter Blue Cloud’s Turtle, Bear, and Wolf (1976), he not only declares the equality of humanity with animals and vegetation but also the equality of men and women. He accomplished enough along this line that some ecofeminists have applauded his work, as with Ursula K. Le Guin’s tribute poem “Naming Gary” and Anne Waldman’s “Voyant,” dedicated to him in Gary Snyder: Dimensions of a Life (1991), edited by Jon Halper.

Action versus apathy

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Green movement poets have done much to change the reputation of the poet from reclusive aesthete to public activist. As a model of this new role, Snyder has frequently given poetry readings at universities and other venues, partly as a way of raising ecological consciousness. In 1976, he delivered “Mother Earth, Her Whales” to an audience of three thousand on California’s Whale Day at a symposium organized by Governor Jerry Brown. At the 1977 Lindisfarne Conference, Snyder performed his ecopoetry as a concert, with musical improvisations between the stanzas, all recorded for release as an album. In 1984, he was one of the leaders of Anarchism, Buddhism, and Political Economy, a forum for four hundred that originated the Recovery of the Commons Project, designed both for the preservation of physical wilderness and humanity’s psychological commonality. Snyder also made a four-part lecture on “Ecology and Poetry” presented on

A large area of eco-activism is popular music, some of it with lyrics of award-winning quality. For example, the Creek poet and musician Joy Harjo (born 1951) performs with the Arrow Dynamics Band. Her album Winding Through the Milky Way was released in 2009. On the academic front, the cause has been supported by such journals as Ecopoetics and ISLE (Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment) as well as by the proliferation of courses on ecology and literature. Poetry slams have often chosen ecology as the topic for their competitions. Snyder and other poets, including Merwin, have recorded their performances. Ecopoets have been particularly active in making protests against nuclear proliferation and pollution. Denise Levertov (1923-1997), who wrote “An English Field in the Nuclear Age” (1981), devoted much of her later life to teach-ins and related activism against war and pollution. Of course, the literary significance of Green movement poetry does not rest on peripheral happenings and media events inspired by it but rather in its having renewed nature poetry with a sense of how fragile and imperiled nature itself has become.


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Bryson, J. Scott. Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2002. A collection of essays: four on precursors, twelve on individual Green movement poets, and a final one on ecology in “identity poetry” (works directed toward a particular ethnicity or gender orientation).

Felstiner, John. Can Poetry Save the Earth? A Field Guide to Nature Poems. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009. A study of diverse precursors and Green movement poets.

Frazier, Jane. From Origin to Ecology: Nature and the Poetry of W. S. Merwin. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999. Examines Merwin’s use of a “disembodied narrator” and other devices to present the world in a nonegotistic manner.

Gifford, Terry. Green Voices: Understanding Contemporary Nature Poetry. New York: Manchester University Press, 1995. A study of British ecopoetry, contrasting it to its precursors.

Murphy, Patrick D. A Place for Wayfaring: The Poetry and Prose of Gary Snyder. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2000. A biographically oriented introduction to Snyder’s ecopoetics.

Rasula, Jed. This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002. Looking at both precursors and Green movement poets, Rasula uses “compost” as a metaphor for the way poetry reprocesses and renews both the external physical and the internal psychological worlds.

Scigaj, Leonard M. Sustainable Poetry: Four American Ecopoets. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999. Relying heavily on the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Scigaj examines the poetry of A. R. Ammon, Wendell Berry, W. S. Merwin, and Gary Snyder, taking their side against postmodernism.

Shuman, Joel James, and L. Roger Owens, eds. Wendell Berry and Religion: Heaven’s Earthly Life (Culture of the Land). Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009. A collection of essays on Berry’s interrelated theology and ecology.

Suiter, John. Poets on the Peaks: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Jack Kerouac. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2003. Well-illustrated with photos by its author, this book details the 1950’s wilderness experiences that later brought these Beat writers into ecopoetry.

Tan, Joan Qionglin. Han Shan, Chan Buddhism, and Gary Snyder’s Ecopoetic Way. Eastbourne, England: Sussex Academic Press, 2009. Comparison of Snyder with his most important Chinese source, Han Shan.