P O E T I C   T H O U G H T S
Tricia Knoll
triciaknoll@gmail.com / triciaknoll.com

No. 3 - March 2024
My Brief Take on Eco-Poetry

We witness climate chaos. This swift falling apart gives a new perspective on poetry that celebrates nature – the lyric legacy of pastorals and the Romantics. We hear predictions of mass extinctions. We do not deny the role of humans. Ecology focuses our lens with quantifying science. Voices describing the changes have become louder. At a recent workshop on writing nature poetry, the poet-facilitator remarked, “This doesn’t have to be a dirge. Let grief and celebration hold hands. The mix is honest.” Write about how it feels to live in a changing world. The smells. Sights. Sounds. Textures. Thought at the visceral and tactile level. Image and metaphor in poetry can translate for the reader what we find so often in scientific, peer-reviewed journals: passive voice, complicated syntax, and unfamiliar terminology. The poetic impulse invites us to feel what is bigger, deeper, and broader. It goes back to what we knew in childhood. Song-saga techniques of rhyme or meter evoke nostalgia, outrage, or empathy that complements the science. Please read “Lead” by Mary Oliver. We know the health consequences of lead in our environment. This is what she saw, what she felt. She uses line breaks, narrative, and surprise. She ends by saying once the heart is broken open, “never close your heart again to the rest of the world.” Her poetic call to action differs from An Atlas of Breeding Birds from 2013 that says, “The ingestion of lead fishing gear is the leading cause of adult loon mortality in New England.” That is science. Two ways of describing danger. Science feeds us so many interesting stories. Male dragonflies changing color due to warmer temperatures. Mountain goats getting smaller. Coffee bean production may see more declines. Humans tell and respond to stories – sometimes over cups of coffee. Eco-poetics explores human-caused changes in nature and the emotions they evoke. Think of the hometown you return to remembering wide swathes of forest that are now mini-malls and subdivisions. Summer wildfires unlike anything your neighbors have experienced before – the smell of them. What they do to the color of sunshine. How far smoke particulates blow. Feel what it means when you understand there may be no more glaciers in Glacier National Park. Consider the afflictions of monster storms. Recently I read Miriam Sagan’s new book, Castaway (2023, Red Mountain Press). The poetry collection ends with “The Librarian at Sea Level,” a nine-part poem in two voices: Sasha, a librarian in San Francisco and Vishnu who owns a convenience store and a rowboat. San Francisco is flooding due to sea level rise. These two are left. Sasha wants to stay, go down with the ship. Vishnu tries to convince her to leave with him in his rowboat. The poems explore their feelings, memories, and what is happening around them. This is a compelling climate change story with poignant symbols in the flooding library of books about Sappho, mermaids, Good Night Moon, and fat romances as Vishnu (the Hindu name for the god of salvation and preservation) is pushed east on whitecaps. We need these stories. And yours. In 2005 philosopher Glen Albrecht coined the word “solastalgia” – which he defined as the “homesickness you feel when you are still at home.” After beloved birdsong goes silent. Or when the one-hundred-year flood comes twice in the last ten years and levels your home. Some moose die because the weather is too warm to kill the blood-sucking ticks. Think how this climate-induced change might have impacted Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “The Moose.” These are dark times for both scientists and poets. At a recent poetry reading for April’s 2023 poetry month, three poets including me read nature poems. Two of us mentioned grandchildren. No one mentioned great grandchildren. And yet, that timeframe looms in front of us. I think of Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” and its host of daffodils. As far as I know, no one is predicting the extinction of daffodils. We are allowed to celebrate. Even for the hummingbird nest outside our window. Lest we become jaded and think these older celebrations no longer hold true, consider that Mary Oliver said she read poems by13th-century Rumi every day of her life. Kim Stafford, one of my teachers, asks this question about a poem: who does it serve? It may be that a great many of the poems we write today about loss provide a space for releasing what must be released. Some serve our friends. Jorie Graham in her 2019 poem “Overheard in the Herd” writes: “This haunts us now. To make a thing for another. For another’s use. To fashion,/to offer, to bring, hide, make. To serve. Oh to serve.... My new humanity is now relieved of/ duty. My soul has its alarm turned off. No my soul has this knot in its throat—or is it a gag—pacified, petrified, up all night counting silently toward infinity.” Do we serve those who read our poems on social media? Can an eco-poem be a Letter to the Editor? To the corporate board of a bank? A community’s planning committee? To a neighbor or the government? How about this for a job description of the eco-poet: frame your vision. A landscape or a window with or without glass, with or without stained glass to record the hues you’ve seldom seen in paint samples. Break open the word nut to discover the words we don’t know yet. Imagine prevailing winds that sculpted the sphinxes. When the bear shambles across a hillside, what twig snaps, what smell vanishes. Describe how you manifest love for the babies born today knowing what you know. When you cry, will you collect tears in a tear vase or water the moss. In outrage what do you do with your tenderness. Use the language of rock, wind, trees, the creatures. (It will be helpful if someone else can read it.) Or maybe it is meant to serve the rock, wind, trees, and creatures. Reread this poem by Galway Kinnell: St. Francis and the Sow. Poets can choose to explore “the long, perfect loveliness” of the world we inherit and lament loss. There are so many stories to tell and retell. The challenge in the face of solastalgia is to remember loveliness to protect one’s sanity. Jane Hirshfield in an essay in The Art of Revising Poetry (Bloomsbury Academic, 2023) says this: “…I remembered something I had to recall, with real difficulty, many times these last years: that even in the direst of circumstances, beauty exists, and where beauty exists, it’s a disrespect and rudeness not to see and praise it.” So be it.

Bio Note: Much of the poetry I write I call eco-poetry. My book Ocean's Laughter records environmental and social change over time in a small town on Oregon's north coast: Manzanita. One Bent Twig collects poems reflecting my love for poetry, my witness to deforestation, and my work to plant native American chestnuts on my property. Broadfork Farm sings the praises of a young family working an organic farm in Trout Lake, Washington. Website: triciaknoll.com
© 2024 Tricia Knoll
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