Can Poetry Be Ecological?

. August 21, 2014.
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I’ve been thinking recently about the Robert Hass poem “Story of the Body,” which envisions a young composer who becomes infatuated with an older woman who is a painter. The painter offers herself up to the young composer, but she first reveals the loss of her breasts, the result of a double mastectomy. The young composer’s attraction “withers” and he returns to his cabin to find a bowl full of flower petals at his door, presumably left by the scorned painter. Underneath the petals the bowl is full of dead bees. The image that ends the poem is both evocative and troubling. The reader feels at once implicated and filled with an implacable sense of sadness. What do the petals and the bees say exactly about the body, gender, and human nature?

Most recently this poem’s sharp natural imagery came up in a different way. I was sitting with a colleague, another poet, at a picnic table tucked beneath a bunch of white birch trees, looking out over a sun-flat lake. We recalled the poem at first reverently, but then with some hesitation. My colleague was asking about our duty as instructors. Is it our job, she asked, to expose students to poetry in which elements of nature don’t exist simply as symbols or images or metaphors, but possibly as a way to reveal values about environmental issues? And where does this poem fall along those lines? I was reminded then, again, of helplessness, of the old adage about poets being akin to the violin players on the sinking Titanic.

The crux

Forrest Gander, in his 2012 book Redstart, asks plainly, “Can poetry be ecological?” He means not natural or pastoral, but interested in ecological consciousness. Gander and Hass are both poets who identify as members of the “Ecopoetry” movement, poets whose work expresses a clear ecological focus or message. Robert Hass wrote the introduction to The Ecopoetry Anthology, released last year. In September, One Pause Poetry brings four of these poets—Forrest Gander, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, and C.D. Wright—to Ann Arbor for a series of readings and discussions about their work in relation to ecology and the environment.

Who?

One Pause Poetry was established in 2010 as part of the nonprofit arts

organization Copper Colored Mountain Arts. Since 2012 One Pause has become the main program for CCMA, working to bring free poetry events to southeast Michigan. One Pause takes its name and inspiration from the medieval Japanese poet Ikkyu Sojun, who revolutionized many forms of Japanese artistic culture. Many One Pause events are held at White Lotus Farms, an organic farm, bakery, and creamery on West Liberty Road that also hosts art, music, and agricultural events.

One Pause also aims to bring different Ann Arbor communities together. Over the past several years they have partnered with METAL, pot & box, Literati, and Nicola’s to host events. “Recently we have shifted our efforts,” said Messer, “we are doing fewer readings, so that we can bring in bigger name poets or poets that haven’t been to the area in a while.” Messer also noted One Pause’s sustained relationship with White Lotus Farms as integral to the organization’s growth. 

Sponsorship for the September events is split between One Pause, the Michigan Arts Council, White Lotus Farms, and the Helen Zell Writers’ Series, and the conversations will be oriented largely around questions of the aesthetics and responsibilities of Ecopoetry. Conversations with the poets will take place separately at the Helmut Stern auditorium as part of the Helen Zell Visiting Writers’ Series. Readings will be held outside at White Lotus Farms, where attendees can experience the cross-pollination of art and ecology in a venue that is both beatific and ecologically minded. Perhaps those of us in attendance—artists, ecologists, teachers, readers—can continue to investigate our roles and responsibilities in relation to art and the environment.

Reading with Forrest Gander and C.D. Wright, Saturday, September 12, 7pm, White Lotus Farms, 7212 W. Liberty, Ann Arbor, MI 48103
Reading with Robert Hass and
Brenda Hillman, Saturday, September 26, 7pm, White Lotus Farms, 7212 W. Liberty, Ann Arbor, MI 48103
www.onepausepoetry.org/
www.lsa.umich.edu/writers/readingsevents