Mary Oliver once wrote “I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me, the door to the woods is the door to the temple.”(1) Mary Oliver is speaking about how she finds inspiration and a deep spiritual connection to the natural world. She is also stating how the natural world is the foundation for her poetry. This is a sentiment shared by many poets. However, this direct inspiration is just the beginning of the way nature shows up in poetry.
As a style of poetry, nature poetry is actually a little more complicated than just seeing the natural world and writing about it. Edward Hirsch discusses how poets view the term “nature” in this excerpt from A Poet’s Glossary.
“Our concepts of nature are relative, historically determined. The nature poem is affected by ideology, by literary convention as well as social and cultural ideas. . . .The term nature is itself contested now because it seems to assume an oversimplified relationship between the human and the environment. “Nature” has been the site of so many different naïve symbolisms, such as purity, escape, and savagery. That’s why poets and critics often refer to green poetry or environmental poetry, which presupposes a complicated interconnection between nature and humankind.”
Hirsch goes on to explore the evolution of nature poetry from fifth century BCE Canaanite mythical “Poem of Aqhat”, to the ecofeminist poetry of Susan Griffin, and then to African American nature poetry highlighted in the 2010 Black Nature anthology.
This evolution of nature poetry has created an opportunity for poets to take a critical look at the way they write about nature. This investigation has led to the concept of ecopoetry.
The Emergence of Ecopoetry
The 1960s brought an awareness of an emerging environmental crisis. This crisis captured the attention of poets and led to the creation of the term ecopoetry. In the introduction to The Ecopoetry Anthology, the editors explain that ecopoetry “Generally, . . . addresses contemporary problems and issues in ways that are ecocentric and that respect the integrity of the other-than-human world.” The editors go on to suggest that ecopoetry can be separated out into three large categories: Nature Poetry, Environmental Poetry, and Ecological Poetry.
The editors state that nature poetry holds nature as the source of inspiration and subject matter. Transcendental and romantic poets shaped this type of poetry. Nature poetry “often meditates on an encounter between the human subject and something in the other-than-human world that reveals an aspect of the meaning of life.” The above quote by Mary Oliver resonates with the idea of nature poetry.
Environmental poetry was built on the foundation of nature poetry. This poetry is inspired by the social and environmental justice movements. Environmental poetry “is committed to questions of human injustice, as well as to issues of damage and degradation to the other-than human world.” Environmental poetry can sometimes be seen as political or activism-base poetry.
The editors of The Ecopoetry Anthology state that ecological poetry is “More elusive than the first two because it engages questions of form most directly”. Forrest Gander is quoted in this book saying that ecological poetry explores “the relationship between nature and culture, language and perception.” Ecological poetry challenges us to take a more biocentric approach and investigate the “Ecological interrelatedness and entanglement” of the natural world.
In another essay in this same book, Laura-Gray Street explains ecopoetry by stating:
“In a sense, poetry has always been ecopoetry, in that the origins of poetry are embedded in the natural world and poetry has traditionally foregrounded nature in a way that drama and fiction have not. But in our contemporary sense of it, ecopoetry isn’t just any poetry garnished with birds and trees; it is a kind of paradigm shift. . . .I have come to think of ecopoetry not as a particular form or subject or style or school but as a way of thinking within and through all of these. Of a way of thinking egocentrically rather than anthropocentrically.”
With the emergence of the term ecopoetry, the nuanced way that we see, react to, and write about the world around us is highlighted. By applying these different lenses to nature-based poetry a reader may better connect with the intention of the poem. With that said, I wonder if these nuances are helpful for the average reader or are they more helpful for the critic.
Labels can be challenging for readers and writers. They have a tendency to limit our ability to see the world. One of the things I really appreciate about poetry is that any given poem may produce different meanings to different people. For example, a poem that is identified as a nature poem may inspire someone to take up political action. Likewise, an environmental poem may help a reader notice the interdependent nature of all existence. It seems to me that any poetry that gets you to think about your role or place in the natural world is beneficial and that the labels we give them are only helpful if they contribute to the joy of the audience.
As I write this, I become aware that today, September 10, is Mary Oliver’s birthday. So to honor her contribution to the world, I would like to end with a quote from her essay “Upstream”. In this quote she is talking about the need to teach children about the natural world. And even though she is specifically talking about children, I think this can apply to everyone.
“Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms.
Attention is the beginning of devotion.”
- “Mary Oliver Nature Poet”, NJ Conservation Foundation
- “Nature Poetry” Poets.org
- Oliver, Mary; Upstream
- Fisher-Wirth, Anne and Street, Laura-Gray The Ecopoetry Anthology
If you want to read more about ecopoetry check out this article from the Poetry Foundation.
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