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The Ecopoetry Anthology Paperback – February 26, 2013
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Award-winning poets and editors Fisher-Wirth and Street define ecopoetry as poetry that responds in some way to “the burgeoning environmental crisis.” By making the distinction between traditional nature poetry and ecopoetry, this groundbreaking anthology joins Bill McKibben’s prose collection, American Earth (2008), which establishes the shift from traditional nature writing to environmental writing. Fisher-Wirth and Street begin with 31 historical poets (e.g., Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Hughes) who explored the human-nature bond prior to the environmental movement. The 176 poets who follow, including such vital guardians as Wendell Berry, Lucille Clifton, Robert Hass, Mary Oliver, and Gary Snyder, along with Dan Beachy-Quick, Lucia Perillo, Srikanth Reddy, and Ed Roberson, explode any notion of a simplistic “green” message. Imagination, emotions, and convictions run high as each poem recalibrates our perception of life on earth. There is no anticipating the glorious spectrum of voices, settings, knowledge, wit, fury, and beauty. Poets draw from the wellsprings of spirit and science, everyday reality and mythic revelations. Ravishing, devastating, and uplifting, this is a mighty, conscionable, and defining anthology of vital poetry shaped by profound environmental intelligence. --Donna Seaman
Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street's rich and generous The Ecopoetry Anthology... Here is bounty indeed--an innovative anthology drawing upon 150 years of American poetry about nature, animals and our precious environment.” Shelf Awareness
Ravishing, devastating, and uplifting, this is a mighty, conscionable, and defining anthology of vital poetry shaped by profound environmental intelligence.” Booklist
The Ecopoetry Anthology is a beautifully constructed, carefully planned, and intelligently framed volume.” Colorado Review
Impressive in the scope and diversity of poets included, The Ecopoetry Anthology is poised to become the de?nitive anthology of American ecopoetry.” ISLE Journal
I’ve always thought poetry could change the world, and with the best energies of Robert Hass, Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street, and these assembled poets, I believe we have a chance.” Washington Independent Review of Books
The strength of The Ecopoetry Anthology is in its companionable, earthbound perspective, poem after poem. Cutting a broad swath from "the natural history of tears" (Peter Gizzi) to "surreal/popcorn surrounded by the reborn" (Jack Collom), the editors have assembled, with curatorial finesse, a genuine constellation of feisty, testy, funny, worried, disconcerted, perplexed, grieving, and roaring poems.” Chicago Review
Poetry might not derail the course we’re on, but the poems gathered here just might soothe what ails us.” Rain Taxi
Puts traditional nature poetry in conversation with the ecocentric avantgarde.”
American Poetry Review
A definitive new collection of poems about nature and environment.” Orion
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I'm drawn to the poetry of ecological-environmental-evolutionary concerns and figured this sprawling 628-page tome (occupying a full 1 15/32" of shelf space -- the width, incidentally, of a #24 stopper), including the works of 208 poets -- while clearly not a paragon of concision -- would provide a comprehensive overview of the best poets and poems of the field; and that it would turn up some valuable discoveries. There were useful discoveries, yes, but finding them required wading too many unnecessary pages, often filled with mediocre and sometimes painful poetry.
Anthologies inevitably provoke opinions and raise hackles: perceived errors of inclusion, exclusion, and relative weighting -- all the judgments that choices trigger. This review follows that honored tradition. I admit to general preferences for the succinct over the meandering, the poetry of knowledge over the poetry of whimsy and obscurity, the vivid image over the bland declaration. So ... having reached the age at which seeking favor and defending one's reputation aren't worth the effort, I'll dive in:
The Valuable Discoveries (or confirmations of previous discoveries): The anthology contains much admirable, impressive work. Poems to recommend to your best friends. Ralph Black (who's 21st Century Lecture proceeds from despair to full-body engagement); Elizabeth Bradford (two well-crafted poems of ironic relationships and the land's ruin); Julia Conner (teaching prisoners, watching shorebirds, a deft dance between these that ends in death -- for the birds, and -- I think -- an implied cautionary note for the prisoners); Lola Haskins ("The long bones of sandhill cranes/ know their next pond. Not us. / When something is too beautiful,/ we do not have the grace to leave."); Alison Hawthorne Deming of the steel-trap eye for natural detail and the nimble metaphor; Kathleen Flenniken -- chronicling the tricky emotional, toxic, and hydrogeological territory of Washington State's Hanford Nuclear Reservation and its history; Lucia Perillo's potent-crafty nature-pop ironical perspective; Eliot Weinberger's amazing extended riff on hundreds of ways of perceiving The Stars; Alice Suskin Osriker's fine, short poem on redemption by beluga; two vigorous-verb-rich poems by Alberto Rios that compel and urge as life does; William Pitt Root's paean to Robinson Jeffers' "poem after bitter poem", "falcon of a face", "famous hatred", and prescience; Eric Paul Shafer's wonderful ode to the octopus; Derek Sheffield's ironic and intelligent eye and ear; and Charles Goodrich's haibun-like account of community-versus-pending-fiberglass-factory -- concluding defiantly: "I'm not leaving. Ever."
The MIA: But where are the great poems of other friends and brothers in this poetic territory? The missing include the splendid poet laureate of Ish River Country and the Palouse wheat-fields -- Robert Sund; Lew Welch -- irreplaceable beat-environmental poet-compatriot of Gary Snyder -- his masterpieces: Wobbly Rock, Chicago Poem, and all the Hermit Poems; bard of the Olympic Peninsula - the prolific naturalist and activist Tim McNulty; irascible trekker of abandoned, wild, and arid lands -- Howard McCord; and wilderness explorer and Whitman Prize winner - Antler. And where is Kim Stafford? And James Wright?
But wait -- my list of gaps has gaps. Although this is described and blurbed as a North American or American anthology, it contains, as far as I can tell, not a single Canadian voice. No Robert Bringhurst, no Don McKay, no Margaret Atwood. It's as if an Anthology of Ecopoetic Lyrics excluded all mention of Joni Mitchell, Buffy St.Marie, or Neil Young.
These are gaps seriously to be grieved.
The Disappointments: Sadly, there are far too many slight, flaccid, and/or bafflingly obtuse poems here. I'll try to be mercifully succinct and cite only a few examples. The average 'contemporary poet' gets 2.5 pages in this collection. but John Ashberry gets 6 pp. to hang out some of the most boring, colorless, and prosy laundry this side of a 1950's convent. He's endlessly saying things like, "If we could look at a photograph of it and say there they are, they never really stopped but there they are. There is so much to be said, and on the surface of it very little gets said." Well, yes truly, very little gets said, at least on Ashberry's watch.
Then there's James Schulyer's slight, hazy Haze with its goofy "white dahlia,/ big/ as Baby Bumstead's head"; and Tim Earley's page-long gimmicky poem (I Like Green Things) stuffed inarticulately with g-words. These include the inapt groins, grog shops, and gravity. Yet the unmodified green appears 14 times, as if primary colors had no shades or synonyms.
Finally, I'll bring down the curtain on this brief preview of the murk and misdirection scattered throughout these gathered poems with this observation. Among otherwise historically appropriate poets: Whitman, Dickenson, Jeffers and the like - are poets who seem far out of place. George Oppen will do as an example. His poems express the perspective of one so deep into his own head as to barely connect with what David Abram perfectly terms the "more-than-human world". His passive verbs, his eye that sees deer's teeth as 'alien', the woods as 'strange' -- anything outside himself as a constellation of 'small nouns' -- all serve to curtain both poet and reader from the spectacular, phenomenal and real world. An objectivist objectifying is not what I think of as an ecopoet.
The Principals: Many of the giants of U.S. ecopoetry you'd expect to find are represented: Kenneth Rexroth, Jane Hirschfield, Gary Snyder, William Stafford, Galway Kinnell, Robinson Jeffers, Denise Levertov, Pattiann Rogers, Robert Hass, Wendell Berry, Richard Hugo, Brenda Hillman, and Robert Bly -- although Bly, with the truly helpful ecopoetic anthology "News of the Universe" to his credit, is represented only by a single, though potent, poem: The Dead Seal.
Despite the disaapointments, I thank the editors for their work. The effort and planning required must have been considerable. As rumor has it that this anthology may reach a second edition, I ask that for next go-round they might take few more editorial steps to improve the overall quality of work, making the anthology more concise, useful, and informative for its presumed audience -- readers who appreciate a powerful and revelatory poem of 'more-than-human' world.
Suggestions for improvement:
* Reprise the collection, excising the weakest, least relevant 30% to 40% of the material.
* Editorship, I suppose, has its perquisites, but for the editors to allow themselves each 5 pages of poetry -- twice the average allotment and equivalent to, or greater than, the space provided for notables such as Theodore Roethke, Denise Levertov, William Carlos Williams, Wendell Berry, and Jane Hirschfield -- seems disproportionate.
* Consider including some of the missing/forgotten poets noted above. It may not be pure coincidence that many of the missing poets are not academics -- MFA chairs, for instance -- but folks who have lived other lives -- lives like most of the poets in the historical section.
* Consider reorganization. The Historical / Contemporary division works reasonably well, as does ordering the historical poets by birth date [although it's not clear why, for instance, Denise Levertov and James Dickey (each 1923-1997) are placed in the historical section, while Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) and Richard Hugo (1923-1982) were placed in the contemporary section]. The reader's sense of historical flow and poetic evolution would be improved by ordering the contemporary poets by birth date as well. The current ordering is arbitrarily alphabetical. Another suggestion for communicating historical relevance: include publication dates with the poems.
* Finally, I'd think about placing the bios with the poets' works rather than isolated as Contributor's Notes way at the back of the collection. Easily accessible biographical information could give useful context to the poets' works. In fact, something other than the standard 50-60-word litany of awards, publications, academic placements -- say a brief statement of ecological perspectives or values -- could enrich what has become a largely bloodless bio-ritual.
In summary, The Ecopoetry Anthology is a useful, if occasionally indulgent, reference work. There are gems and seeds scattered widely among plastic bags and flip-flops. May the editors employ another round or two of editing in subsequent efforts. We readers will appreciate it.
1) As a graduate student of ecopoetry, I found the Editors' Preface indispensable for the way it synthesizes and clarifies past definitions of ecopoetry (is it nature poetry? environmental poetry? ecological poetry? what do those all mean, and how are they different?). The editors are entitled to define and delineate those any way they want - but their doing so gave wonderful clarity to some writing I was doing in my dissertation, so I applaud them for it!
2 & 3) These are fine. Brief "I first thought about nature and poetry when I read _____" and "Editing this book was _____" reflections.
4) Haas's introduction will not be shocking news to students of ecopoetry, but for the average reader it does a good job of laying out the historical context of American poetry about nature and the environment. It starts with Whitman, has a section on Modernism & Ecology, then talks about how the environmental movement and American poetry interacted in/after the 1960s, and moving into the global environmental crises of today. He cites some very relevant poems from within the anthology, and even references some non-American writers in an effort to bring together a unified sense of contemporary ecopoetics. It's interesting, and helpful to understanding the rest of the book. 9/10 would read again.