Some Notes Regarding the Nature Poem, or What Is It You Plan To Do With Your One Wild and Precious Collapse: Part One

By Ted Rees

1. I'd like to assert that the 'nature poem,' or at least the formation of the definition of the 'nature poem' as it is currently used by many poets, is outdated. In a recent poem, the brilliant Jasmine Gibson writes:


Isn't it funny when editors ask for you to write about 'nature' or what 'comes natural' to you in your environment
When in face the concept of nature is bourgeois 18th century not meant for you to ingest
And the fact that nature poems are the class enemy
And cement cages by tainted water and fields to work are what you know 


And so we arrive at a truth: man-made ecosystems—and they are ecosystems, part of larger ecosystems of unfathomable immensity—are brutal places, created through racist ideologies like slavery and kept intact by the unremitting logics of extraction and domination, of capital. But how are we to address these depredations and this violence in our writing without writing 'nature poems'? How to talk about Flint's “tainted water” or First Nation's lands' “tainted water” without addressing water? Can we even speak of the horrors of slavery and “fields to work” without detailing fields, their formations? It is my belief that we can't have poetic discourse about ecological crisis, much less racist and state-sponsored violence, without writing 'nature poems,' and thus, the understanding of the 'nature poem' must be radically reorganized, not so as to blank out the history of the term (however hegemonic it might be), but in order to reclaim the nature poem's power to incite rage, excite possibilities of freedom from capital, and inspire deeper understandings of the ecosystems to which we belong, no matter how necrotic they have become. 

2. Perhaps in order for this reclamation to occur, though, we must understand that the dichotomy set up by traditional 'nature poems' and reinscribed by industrial society is false; indeed, this dichotomy is dangerous, as it places a wall between 'wilderness' and 'civilization' that relegates the former into an other, a place to which humans don't belong and thus do not need to have any regard for, unless it is for the leeching of its resources. Instead, there must be recognition that the man-made ecosystem of the city or town would not exist without the wider and wilder ecosystem, and that they are in fact part of even wider ecosystems. As Gary Snyder writes in the first chapter of his seminal The Practice of the Wild, “we can say that New York City and Tokyo are 'natural' but not 'wild.' They do not deviate from the laws of nature, but they are habitat so exclusive in the matter of who and what they give shelter to, and so intolerant of other creatures, as to be truly odd.”

What is being proposed here is that the 'nature poem' must give voice to the harsh realities of that exclusivity, whether it be towards humans in the form of racism or sexism or any host of other oppressive and deadly cruelties, or towards other non-human animals and plants. The rejection of wilderness, the negation of the whole ecosystems from which we spring, is what causes those exclusivities and depredations to take hold in the first place.

3. One of major problems with many 'nature poems' as they exist in their current, unreclaimed state— and this is not to dismiss the critical lenses of eco-poetries, or the newer necropastorals— is that they subscribe wholly to the dangeous dichotomy mentioned above. Among the most widely-read and best-selling poets of our time, Mary Oliver's poetry reflects a reverence for wilderness that can be inspiring, but is also fetishistic to the point of ignoring the very real problems (such as those central to Gibson's work) that exist within the wider ecosystem. When she asks in one of her most popular poems, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life,” she is casting judgment on those whose lives cannot be devoted to taking long walks through the woods, or on the beaches or swamps or meadows of her adopted resort-town home of Provincetown, Massachusetts. Her work, and others' work which dwells in similar circles, is dismissive of the deprivations and hardships that exist within the wider natural world, prizing a false sense of 'wilderness' over any sort of real empathics. It is a self-congratulatory poetry, and one which has tarnished the formation of the 'nature poem' as it exists at present.


Coming in future installments: Peter Culley and the interstices, Soham Patel's storms, and the demand for poetries reflective of the suicidal and ecocidal present.



Ted Rees is the author of several chapbooks, including The New Anchorage (Mondo Bummer 2014) and Outlaws Drift in Every Vehicle of Thought (Trafficker Press 2013). Recent work has appeared in Asphodel, Armed Cell, Elderly, and the Drunken Boat blog. Forthcoming work includes essays on David Wojnarowicz's oeuvre in Tripwire and Compline Editions' monograph on New Narrative, as well as a sequence of new poems in SET. He lives in Weed, California, which is a real place, and wakes up to a gorgeous view of Mt. Shasta every day.





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