Environmental Poetry

Some people might argue that if you crossbred nature poetry with political poetry, you would end up with a mutant — environmental verse. I think the genre is much richer than that. The problem, however, is that any poetry that becomes too didactic, or moralizing, tends to be better suited to the essay, which processes instruction more easily than verse does. We look to poetry to feel ennobled, or inspired, or to understand the essence of truth — not the facts of it, or the consequences. Yet poems about the state of the planet and our impact on it also convey the essence of our ever-changing relationship with nature.

Although I believe that environmental verse belongs in the nature poetry category, I have set aside a separate section for it for these reasons:

1. For centuries, too many poems about nature have de-emphasized the relationship between the planet and humanity.

2. For centuries, poems about nature have celebrated the seasons or the outdoors.

3. For centuries, themes in noncelebratory poems have emphasized conflict (i.e., man against nature/nature against man) with nature usually depicted as invincible.

Environmental poetry seems to run against the grain of these longstanding conventions. Neither does it seem appropriate to include the category under political verse. Although ecological issues may concern government and its policies (or culture and its values), they deal primarily with a narrower view: policies and values that affect the humanplanet relationship.

The human part of that dual relationship is world population; the planet part is other living things (including, of course, Earth as a living entity). Thus, this type of poetry does not celebrate the seasons or outdoors, chiefly because each has been endangered in the last decades of the twentieth century. (Perhaps one day environmental poetry will be celebratory, chronicling the accomplishments of ecologists or nature as triumphant, after all.) Finally, the conflict in such poetry highlights human capacity to destroy the world as we know.it.

This topic is becoming more popular as we become more ecologically aware. Although poetry is the natural place to express our current-day concerns about the planet, environmental verse has a tendency to teach, preach at or even insult its readers.

Here's a quick example:


You consume my dreams with paper cups! I have watched you drive your van everywhere except the dump. The remains of your planet are on display, incinerating mine.

All that is expressed, alas, is anger. As with all genres of poetry, the best environmental verse shares an epiphany or experience that unifies our convictions or emotions. The above poem doesn't do either. It notes a few truths, one can argue, but it is too self-serving and predictable to interest readers.

The best way to characterize good environmental poetry is to analyze examples of it. I have chosen ones by authors who have varying interpretations of the subgenre. Though their definitions may differ, their poems have one thing in common: They deflect the impulse to preach or teach.

Poet Roger Jones, who teaches creative writing in Texas, fell in love with nature poetry after reading the canon of Robert Frost. He says he is wary of the political overtones associated with environmental verse: "In a sense, almost all poetry is nature poetry in that it deals with something in the world, and nature in a large sense encompasses all that is in the world. On the other hand, what these days is designated as 'environmental poetry' to me is marked either by didacticism [the virtuous 'natural' attitude versus the 'corrupt' city attitude] or by a conscious attempt on the author's part to dramatize nature as an entity profoundly nonhuman in its essence."

Jones questions motives of poets who also label themselves environmentalists. But he admits that he is torn between resisting stereotypical poems —"Save the Yellow Banded Warbler! Preserve the Ozone!" — and admiring ones that he calls "quiet poems of ecological commitment." Here is an example of the latter by Jones:

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