The nature of ecopoetics against the background of ecocritical theory with reference to poems by Martjie Bosman
Thus man, this world's vice-emperor, in whom
All faculties, all graces are at home;
And if in other creatures they appear,
They're but man's ministers, and legates there,
To work on their rebellions, and reduce
Them to civility and to man's use. (Donne 1971:275)
As far back as 1611 the metaphysical poet John Donne described the relationship between man and nature in his poem “An anatomy of the World”, words that resound in the many current debates on man’s abuse of the non-human world which surrounds him. Donne claims that other creatures – a phrase which can be read as referring to the whole non-human world – are subjected to the mercy and instrumental use of man. Later in the same poem he describes how the world is broken apart and how connection and interconnectivity are lost – a thought that is currently resonating in global discussions on ecology.
Lawrence Buell, one of the pioneers of the ecocritical movement, writes in his study The future of environmental criticism (2005:1–2) that the earliest stories of mankind were those that dealt with earth and creation and with God and man’s transformative interference with it, which is an indication of the fact that environmental consciousness and criticism as a developing discipline has ancient roots.
In this article the focus of investigation includes two areas, presented in two parts. The first part, which is the main focus of the article, presents a theoretical background to the concepts of ecocriticism and ecopoetics. It serves in particular as an attempt to establish an encompassing definition of ecopoetry.
As a critical theory, ecocriticism does not yet have the same status as, for instance, postcolonialism or postmodernism, but there is an increasing call for the study of place in the same way as class, race and gender. The interdisciplinary character of ecocriticism makes precise definition difficult, and, as Cook (1994:2) comments, ecocriticism can be seen as inclusive rather than exclusive, without the need to draw boundaries.
An ecological perspective would mean that the whole can be perceived in terms of the connectivity of the parts. Elgin (1983:8) describes it as follows:
It means trying to see a whole which is enormous and complex – and a cosmic view so threatening of man’s image of himself – that we are tempted to retreat to our comfortable broom closets of specialized knowledge, to fragments of information re-assuring precisely because they have simplified our world to a point at which we can understand it.
The diversity of the ecocritical field of investigation includes the following questions, among others: the meaning of the concept nature; the concept wilderness (as chaos) and how perceptions of it has changed through time; commentary on land/earth and the way in which we live on it; criticism on who we are, how we have been living and how a new way of living can be constructed; personal connection and a sense of responsibility on the topic; a new awareness of, and interest in, how changing landscapes are being explored and represented by authors; the difference between landscape and environment; investigations on landscape as emotional space, as memory, melodrama and sentiment; how the moral geography of space and place looks; how environmental literature and politics are related; and the way in which ecopoetry and ecocriticism lead to different strategies of action other than environmental policy. Ecocriticism also presents a broadening perspective on the way in which nature and wilderness are being looked at as the new Other.
The exploration of the nature and range of the ecocritical movement is, in the words of Buell (2005:1), “an increasingly heterogeneous movement” and a road “bestrewn by obstacles both external and self-imposed”. Thus, one of the exciting developments in the field of ecologically engaged writing is the investigation of the concept of poetics. Skinner (2001:7), in his journal ecopoetics, suggests that ecopoetics is a writing practice of making habitable, of language entrenched in the materiality and relations that subsume our shared environment:
“Eco” here signals – no more, no less – the house we share with several million other species, our planet Earth. “Poetics” is used as poesis or making, not necessarily to emphasize the critical over the creative act (nor vice versa). Thus: ecopoetics, a house making. (Skinner 2001:5)
In his liminal text Ecopoetry: A critical introduction J. Scott Bryson defines ecopoetry as follows:
Ecopoetry is a subset of nature poetry, that, while adhering to certain conventions of romanticism, also advances beyond that tradition and takes on distinctly contemporary problems and issues, thus resulting in a version of nature poetry generally marked by three primary characteristics. (Bryson 2002:5)
He identifies these three characteristics as (1) the recognition of the interdependent nature of the world, (2) the humility in the relationship with both the human and non-human world and (3) an intense scepticism against hyper-reality and excessive technology (2002:5–6). Bryson’s definition is later expanded to include the terminology poiesis. This word comes from the Greek word ποιέω, which means “to make”, and forms the root of the modern word poetry, which initially was used as a verb, an action which transforms and propels the world.
The definition of ecopoetics within the broader framework of ecocriticism has received no attention in the field of Afrikaans literary theory so far. In the first part of the article questions about the nature of ecopoetry are asked against the backdrop of ecocritical theory and a comprehensive definition is formulated. A number of structural and conceptual markers or attributes are identified which are typical of ecopoetry. The varied creative practices and ideological threads suggest a multifaceted and hybrid nature, alluding to the creative-critical boundaries between poetry and ecology and the interdisciplinary nature of ecopoetics. Such practices and concepts include the following: emplaced writing; whole page-space writing; the concept of the poem as landscape and landscape as poem; open-form writing; dynamic spacing; recycling of texts; dynamic partnership writing practices; complex sound patterns and sound play.
Attention is given to aspects of the sublime and the revised (postcolonial) sublime and how the fracturing of the poem creates inner tension, disrupts the inner coherence of the poem and creates new coherence whereby the co-existence of beauty and non-beauty is established. An ecopoem, according to Arigo (n.d.:3), is a poem under tension: “a tension located at the intersection of human interference and destruction and the beauty of nature”. Boundaries between beauty and non-beauty and between nature and culture are revoked.
The encompassing definition which I propose is: Ecopoetry is poetry that does not deal exclusively with nature and ecological questions, but searches for a way to appreciate, understand and express through language the co-existence of man and nature. Ecopoetry is more than poetry. It is movement which springs from the tension at the point where man and nature intersect and tries to create systematic coherence of the whole, which often happens through the destabilising and fracturing of the poem and creating a new concept of beauty and of home and of place, a place that we share with other species on this planet.
In the second, short part of the article, selected poems by Martjie Bosman from the volume Toevallige tekens (2010) are discussed by asking: What does an ecopoem look like? Common themes and characteristics present in ecopoetry are identified. Attention is given to four areas of coherence and interconnectivity, as manifested in ecopoetry: the ecology of the visual, with special reference to the front page and title; the ecology of beauty; the ecology of place and the ecology of poem structure and processes.
In conclusion: Morton (2010:11) states that “[a]ll poems are environmental, because they include the spaces in which they are written and read – blank spaces around and between words, silence within the sound.” Ecocriticism, and in particular, ecopoetry, allows the reader a fresh perspective on poetry, challenging the established perceptions of place and environment and nature. It allows for the interconnectivity and relationship to be studied. It challenges the space and place of the poem itself, and of what is left as open, white space. Man becomes the listener, on the edge, to the voice of the natural world:
You own nothing
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was the other way round. (Atwood 1995:109)
Key words: ecocriticism; ecopoetics; ecopoetry; ecological connectivity; revised sublime; postmodern sublime; new Other; fractions; fracturing