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Beyond Goodwill and Language: Why Ecopoetics Should Embrace Policy Wonks

21 Mar

(This post is part of conversation with poet and friend Moriah Purdy. The first post can be read over at Here Now, Myriads.)

Moriah has already provided some good working definitions of ecopoetics already, so I don’t have much to add on that front. My primary interest in ecopoetics is how it intersects with policy and political activism. I welcome responses from anyone, though I’m eager to hear the thoughts of my co-blogging conversationalist.

The oft posed questions surrounding poetry and practice run something like, “Does poetry do anything? Can ecopoetics help change environmental policy for the better?” These are often rhetorical questions or placeholders for future debates that don’t materialize.  I want to try to begin addressing them, and so I’ll offer what I see as the major limitation of ecopoetics (however defined): It doesn’t help us think about the environmental problems currently facing us.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if we’re focusing on ecopoetics as a poems themselves; poetry doesn’t pretended to offer the kinds arguments and evidence that essays or policy papers do, so it would be unfair to criticize ecopoets for not doing something they’ve never pretended to do. But much of the discussion surrounding ecopoetics seems to offer up questions without attempts to work through problems or offer potential solutions. An excerpt from Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice highlights my concern:

Consider another subject, which is beginning, at long last, to receive the attention it deserves, that is, the neglect and deterioration of the natural environment. It is, as is increasingly clear, a hugely serious problem and one that is closely linked with the negative effects of human behaviour, but the problem does not arise from any desire of people today to hurt those yet to be born, or even to be deliberately callous about the future generations’ interests. And yet, through lack of reasoned engagement and action, we do still fail to take adequate care of the environment around us and the sustainability of the requirements of good life. To prevent catastrophes caused by human negligence or callous obduracy, we need critical scrutiny, not just goodwill towards others.

Critical scrutiny is the key here, even though I think many ecopoets would argue that they are offering a kind of “critical scrutiny”—for example, by examining the ways we use language to talk about the environment. But I think that (much) of the critical scrutiny offered by ecopoetics is severely limited and often fails to address some of the most pressing concerns. This Tamiko Beyer post about the BP oil spill at the Kenyon Review blog is one such example¹:

I understand that to mean that the act of thinking through an ecopetics forces us to ask questions about the role and function of art/writing/etc. as we approach a critical ecological/environmental breaking point. The problems – as in the oil spill – are so huge and seemingly impossible to tackle – what use, then, poetry?

It’s a question that’s been asked before in many different contexts, but for me, it makes intuitive sense that an ecopoetics is a reasonable, appropriate, even vital response to ecological disaster. As one panelist pointed out (Iijima? Durand?) all poetry in some respect is ecopoetic: our language and language production cannot help but be influenced by and indicate the ecology that we exist in.

Given that, I want to think that we can start to reconsider our relationship with our ecology/environment by putting pressure on the language that is a manifestation of that relationship.

Though the problem is seemingly impossible to tackle, we already have a host of critical tools we can use to think about the problem: What are the environmental costs? What sort of regulation is missing? How have government regulators failed (or overreached)? What sort of legal remedies are effective/available? What kind of political action could communities muster to prevent future disasters?. It’s not that language is unimportant, it’s that the numerous disciplines that ecopoetics claims to include have spent some time thinking about these issues and these disciplines would be a great edition to the vocabulary of ecopoetics.  See, for example, Ryan Advent discussing the tension between environmentalists and the economic models which politicians and policy makers rely on to craft climate change legislation (or, as is the case with the US Congress, not make policy).

My feeling is that many ecopoets would nod along with some of these criticisms, admitting that, of course short term policy is indeed important, but that ecopoetics is playing a long game that is interested in changing the ways we think about the environment, breaking us out of status quo thinking and critical approaches (like economic models) which are too limited (or even damaging). I’m skeptical that many of these ecopoetic alternatives consider the full scope of the problem (global climate change is history’s greatest collective action problem–which problematic language game stands in the way of turning China, the US, and India into green nations?).  Which is why I’m interested to hear how others think ecopoetics can (or even shouldn’t) take into account some of the policy concerns of environmentalists and public debate.

fn.1: I don’t mean to suggest that Beyer is wholly unaware of other approaches to the oil spill besides language analysis; she says in the post that she hopes to revisit ecopoetic concerns in another post which, unfortunately, she didn’t write (only so many things you can address as a guest blogger). Perhaps she has since addressed similar concerns elsewhere.

Saving Globalization from the Poets

18 Jun

Jeremy Schmall has a post over at HTML Giant that argues that poetry’s larger cultural irrelevance makes it a useful site of resistance against globalization.  Schmall’s description of globalization (and capitalism in general) however, is mostly caricature bolstered by some hand-waving and talk about the power of imagination.  The central mistake is, I think, an attempt to define “true culture” against market exchanges:

The crucial point here is understanding the difference between a consumer market and true culture. A consumer market is based on what kinds of people buy what kinds of things, i.e. how to make money by selling what to whom. True culture is the spread of what is critical to people, beyond the control of corporate manipulation, and without regard to profitability; culture is precisely how humanity itselfunderstands humanity itself. Capitalism seeks to manipulate this process by producing its own manufactured meaning; if it can control the endpoints, it can control the means to achieving those endpoints, e.g. if you want to be a “hip enlightened nerd,” here’s your type of shoe, TV show, soft drink, and automobile.

As a categorical tool for thinking about these different relationships, the cultural/market (Geminschaft and Gesellschaft) are, in the abstract, useful.  But Schmall defines “true culture” as that which is “critical to people,” and then cites poetry’s continued existence in the face of overwhelming forces that poetry must be critical to people while neglecting all of the other things we consider “critical” that are part of market exchanges.  As someone who values and writes poetry, I’ll readily agree that poetry (in whatever form) had be deemed important, across cultures and historical epochs. But what about the most critical resources and goods like food, clothing, and shelter? We consider these part of cultures (and often leave their distribution to the market, with some controls and exceptions).  There are many creative, cultural products and traditions that are part of market exchanges and the result of market forces (think of something as simple as French toast or stews in cooking; both use leftover or day old ingredients as a creative response to limited resources).

Moreover, Schmall’s description of capitalism oversimplifies things to the point of distortion:

A consensus has emerged that our current place of existence—severe economic crisis and pervasive paranoia—can be blamed on poor management, that with a few tweaks—tighter regulations, less leveraging, more honest accounting—the catastrophe unfolding before us could’ve been avoided; but what has really been revealed is a crisis of our collective imaginations. It’s been revealed that we were incapable of imagining a world without a receding economic horizon that must be sped toward at an increasingly rapid pace, despite the fact that the faster we sprint—the longer we work with increasing productivity—the faster it recedes; that we failed to imagine our lives without consumer electronics, name brands, oversized homes, green lawns, shopping malls, and automobiles; that we failed to imagine for ourselves a world we could truly thrive in.

How has increasing productivity lead to “a receding economic horizon”?  I’d argue (or agree, as the case may be) that increasing income (the result of increasing productivity) shouldn’t be the only measure of welfare and flourishing in a society, but the list of consumerist evils (name brands, shopping malls, oversized homes) is simple hand-waving.  How do any of these things prevent us of from thriving (the argument that we don’t pay the true costs of these–the negative externalities–is a valid one, but one that has a market/government solution, but Schmall rejects these in favor of improving our “collective imaginations”)?

Finally, consider also that “true culture” can be restrictive in ways that inhibit flourishing and reduce welfare (whether material or something more abstract).  There are many cultures that have cultural practices, dress codes, mores, and roles that aren’t the result of the market, but tightly inscribe what women should do and wear, or what jobs a certain ethnic or religious sub-group may hold.  These are real restrictions on flourishing (women can’t earn a living not provided by a man, can’t be educated and improve their own understanding) that have nothing to do with the market.  Contrary to what many of globalization’s critics argue (or assume about their work of economists and other proponenets of markets) there isn’t a single market policy or process of liberalization that a country must persue (see Dani Rodrik”s work).  But what Schmall is describing is a caricacture of capitalism, a caricarture with little explanatory power.

Reginald Sheperd (1963-2008)

12 Sep

He died yesterday evening.  A loss to the world of poetry and, of course, the world.  Condolences to his friends and family.  It’s strange–though I knew he had liver cancer and was in the hospital, somehow I thought he would just keep on striving and writing, in spite of the odds. He will be missed.

For more about his work and writings, check the link to his blog on the sidebar under “Lit & Poetry.”

It’s a Nice Day to Start Again

10 Jul

I hesitate to say that Brad DeLong is wrong–merely misguided, perhaps–in his advice to Ta-Nehisi Coates.  Marriage is good thing (There’s a drinking! And presents! All while in formal wear!) but I was reminded of a few lines from Philip Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings”:

Success so huge and wholly farcical;
The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared
At a religious wounding. Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.
Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem

Just long enough to settle hats and say
I nearly died,
A dozen marriages got under way.
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
– An Odeon went past, a cooling tower, And
someone running up to bowl – and none
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.

Yes, Larkin was a dyspeptic and rather unlikable fellow, but he has a point; one must consider the entire affair, the sheer production of it all.  If the current arrangement seems to be humming along nicely, no need to trade it in just yet. To be honest, though, the first lines to pop into my head were from the, uh “poet”, Gordon Sumner:

No earthly church has ever blessed our union
No state has ever granted us permission
No family bond has ever made us two
No company has ever earned commission
No debt was paid no dowry to be gained
No treaty over border land or power
No semblance of the world outside remained
To stain the beauty of this nuptial hour

The secret marriage vow is never spoken
The secret marriage can never be broken

No flowers on the altar
No white veil in your hair
No maiden dress to alter
No bible oath to swear

The secret marriage vow is never spoken
The secret marriage can never be broken

I should also mention that Young Zeitlin rains on my “excuse to have a party” parade with a thoughtful post about marriage policy and the Democrats.

Buy This Book

26 Jun

Mike Scalise alerts me to the fact that Other Latitudes, the first book of poetry by Brian Brodeur, is now available for you to purchase.  I haven’t read everything in the collection, but having read Brian’s stuff before (and having been in a workshop with him) I’m pretty excited about this book.  Rather than butcher a description of the work based on ill-formed notions of the manuscript, I’ll let the ever articulate Eric Pankey explain it:

Reading Brian Brodeur, I am reminded of St. Augustine’s assertion that “To blame the fault of a creature is to praise its essential nature.” In the lyric narratives of his debut collection, Other Latitudes, which is urgent, evocative, and, at times, disturbing, Brodeur shows us that the wide expanse of the heart is rife with flaw and error and in showing us its flaw, praises it. Human relationships—the tragic and the comedic—are his subject and he testifies to their essential vitality and complexity with a capacious wit, a quick intelligence, and an enduring generosity.

And if that isn’t enough to sell you on it, Mike Scalise has more pithy take:

The best way I can describe Brodeur’s work is that it’s compulsively readable.

There you go, the essential quality for any book of poetry: it’s interesting.  So put the boring stuff down and read this instead.  You didn’t really want to read that other stuff anyway.

Sometimes I Read Things Out Loud

22 Feb

yak.jpgTonight is one of those nights. I’ll be reading poetry alongside talented fiction writer Rebecca McGill and the wry and incisive non-fiction stylings of Mike Scalise. It starts at 8pm at George Mason University: third floor, Meeting Room E in the Johnson Center. So if you’re around (and for some reason you read this blog), you’re welcome to come. I promise to read poetry about comic book superheros, famous physicists, and the occasional economist. So you know what you’re getting yourself into.

Yes, it’s probably as bad as it sounds, but look at this way: free drinks to lull the higher brain functions asleep while you listen to bad verse and funny stories.

The Trouble With Politics and Poets

4 Oct

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the intersection between politics and poetry, after reading David Wojahn’s article on the condition of political poetry today in the summer issue of The Writer’s Chronicle. I’m working on addressing it in a longer piece, but in the meantime I wanted to point to a short and smart post about poetry and politics at Reginald Shepard’s blog. I think he captures the limits of poetry as a political tool:

George Oppen gave up writing poetry for several years in favor of political activism, because he believed neither that poetry could change society nor that it should be subordinated to an agenda. In Oppen’s words, “If you decide to do something politically, you do something with political efficacy. And if you write poetry, you write poetry, not something you hope, or deceive yourself into believing, can save people who are suffering.” Several years ago, I was asked by someone I had just met whether my poetry was Afrocentric. I told him that I didn’t know what he meant by that term, and he said, “You know, dedicated to the liberation of black people everywhere.” My only answer was, “I don’t think that poems can do that.”

I’m in general agreement that the sort of work poetry does isn’t the sort of work that is necessarily useful (or perhaps, most valuable) to politics or political action. If you want to change someone’s mind or rail against something, write a polemic. And as Shepard notes in the comments to his post, a work’s value is separate from the politics of it’s creator; good art can be the product of bad politics (and vice versa).

My point of departure, however, comes when Shepard discusses the value of poetry in response to a commenter:

While much visual art is deeply enmeshed in the market economy (even though its value as a commodity is based on its transcendence of commodity status), poems (which, in Levi-Strauss’s characterization of music, are virtual objects whose shadows alone are real) have neither use value nor exchange value. As my reference to Levi-Strauss indicates, they aren’t even really things at all. (Is “the poem” this printed copy or that handwritten copy or this oral performance or this mental representation? Etc. etc.)

It isn’t clear to me why poetry can’t be part of market exchanges; you can print books, and sell them in bookstores (or by yourself, on the street). And insofar as we can’t ever say which poem is the “true poem” (a handwritten poem or the one delivered during a reading), that’s why we have intellectual property rights like copyright protection; the market itself can’t make an idea exclusive, so we use the government to enforce a form of property rights held by creators. But we don’t even have to be as concerned with profit and property rights to argue that art has value in a capitalist economy; we carve out space for works that we find valuable, but that markets tends to underproduce by creating big grant agencies (like the NEA) and subsiding museums at the government level, and giving tax breaks for charitable donations to universities, non-profit art programs, and (again) museums at the private level.

The sort of economy Shepard is describing isn’t one I recognize, or one that appears in an economics class. I think Shepard (and other poets) would respond that this is the point, that this isn’t economic orthodoxy as practiced by economists, but I don’t think he’s describing the workings of a market economy in practice.