The Green, the Gray, and the Mottled, A Review of The Ecopoetry Anthology, 2013. Edited by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street, introduction by Robert Hass. Trinity University Press, San Antonio, Texas.
Probably against my better judgment I read this anthology, over the course of several months, front-to-back, cover-to-cover, blurbs-to-credits. I feel obliged to provide an account of findings — whether it serves as an invitation or as a warning.
I’m drawn to the poetry of ecological-environmental-evolutionary concerns and figured this sprawling 628-page tome (occupying a full 1 15/32″ of shelf space — the width, incidentally, of a #24 stopper), including the works of 208 poets — while clearly not a paragon of concision — would provide a comprehensive overview of the best poets and poems of the field; and that it would turn up some valuable discoveries.
There were useful discoveries, yes, but finding them required wading too many unnecessary pages, often filled with mediocre and sometimes painful poetry.
Anthologies inevitably provoke opinions and raise hackles: perceived errors of inclusion, exclusion, and relative weighting — all the judgments that choices trigger. This review follows that honored tradition. I admit to general preferences for the succinct over the meandering, the poetry of knowledge over the poetry of whimsy and obscurity, the vivid image over the bland declaration.
So… Having reached the age at which seeking favor and defending one’s reputation aren’t worth the effort, I’ll dive in:
The Valuable Discoveries (or confirmations of previous discoveries): The anthology contains much admirable, impressive work. Poems to recommend to your best friends are:
Ralph Black whose 21st Century Lecture proceeds from despair to full-body engagement
Elizabeth Bradford two well-crafted poems of ironic relationships and the land’s ruin
Julia Conner teaching prisoners, watching shorebirds, a deft dance between these that ends in death — for the birds, and — I think — an implied cautionary note for the prisoners
Lola Haskins “The long bones of sandhill cranes/ know their next pond. Not us. / When something is too beautiful,/ we do not have the grace to leave.”
Alison Hawthorne Deming of the steel-trap eye for natural detail and the nimble metaphor
Kathleen Flenniken chronicling the tricky emotional, toxic, and hydrogeological territory Washington State’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation and its history
Lucia Perillo’s potent-crafty nature-pop ironical perspective
Eliot Weinberger’s amazing extended riff on hundreds of ways of perceiving The Stars
Alice Suskin Osriker’s fine, short poem on redemption by beluga
Alberto Rios’ two vigorous-verb-rich poems that compel and urge as life does
William Pitt Root’s paean to Robinson Jeffers’ “poem after bitter poem”, “falcon of a face”, “famous hatred”, and prescience
Eric Paul Shafer’s wonderful ode to the octopus
Derek Sheffield’s ironic and intelligent eye and ear
Charles Goodrich’s haibun-like account of community-versus-pending-fiberglass-factory — concluding defiantly: “I’m not leaving. Ever.”
The Missing in Action: Where are the great poems of other friends and brothers in this poetic territory? The missing include the splendid poet laureate of Ish River Country and the Palouse wheat-fields Robert Sund. Or Lew Welch, irreplaceable beat-environmental poet-compatriot of Gary Snyder, his masterpieces: Wobbly Rock, Chicago Poem, and all the Hermit Poems. Also bard of the Olympic Peninsula, the prolific naturalist and activist Tim McNulty and irascible trekker of abandoned, wild, and arid lands — Howard McCord. And wilderness explorer and Whitman Prize winner – Antler. Where is Kim Stafford? And James Wright?
But wait — my list of gaps has gaps. Although this is described and blurbed as a North American or American anthology, it contains, as far as I can tell, not a single Canadian voice. No Robert Bringhurst, no Don McKay, no Margaret Atwood. It’s as if an anthology of ecopoetic lyrics excluded all mention of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. These are gaps seriously to be grieved.
The Disappointments: Sadly, there are far too many slight, flaccid, and/or bafflingly obtuse poems here. I’ll try to be mercifully succinct and cite only a few examples. The average ‘contemporary poet’ gets 2.5 pages in this collection. but John Ashberry gets 6 pp. to hang out some of the most boring, colorless, and prosy laundry this side of a 1950’s convent. He’s endlessly saying things like, “If we could look at a photograph of it and say there they are, they never really stopped but there they are. There is so much to be said, and on the surface of it very little gets said.” Well, yes truly, very little gets said, at least on Ashberry’s watch.
Then there’s James Schulyer’s slight, hazy haze with its goofy “white dahlia,/ big/ as Baby Bumstead’s head”; and Tim Earley’s page-long gimmicky poem (I Like Green Things) stuffed inarticulately with g-words. These include the inapt groins, grog shops and gravity. Yet the unmodified green appears 14 times, as if primary colors had no shades or synonyms.
Finally, I’ll bring down the curtain on this brief preview of the murk and misdirection scattered throughout these gathered poems with this observation. Among otherwise historically appropriate poets: Whitman, Dickinson, Jeffers and the like – are poets who seem far out of place.
George Oppen will do as an example. His poems express the perspective of one so deep into his own head as to barely connect with what David Abram perfectly terms the “more-than-human world”. His passive verbs, his eye that sees deer’s teeth as ‘alien’, the woods as ‘strange’ — anything outside himself as a constellation of ‘small nouns’ — all serve to curtain both poet and reader from the spectacular, phenomenal and real world. An objectivist objectifying is not what I think of as an ecopoet.
The Principals: Many of the giants of U.S. ecopoetry you’d expect to find are represented:
Kenneth Rexroth, Jane Hirschfield, Gary Snyder, William Stafford, Galway Kinnell, Robinson Jeffers, Denise Levertov, Pattiann Rogers, Robert Hass, Wendell Berry, Richard Hugo, Brenda Hillman, Robert Bly, — although Bly, with the truly helpful ecopoetic anthology “News of the Universe” to his credit, is represented only by a single, though potent, poem: The Dead Seal.
Despite the disappointments: I thank the editors for their work. The effort and planning required must have been considerable. As rumor has it that this anthology may reach a second edition, I ask that for next go-round they might take few more editorial steps to improve the overall quality of work, making the anthology more concise, useful, and informative for its presumed audience — readers who appreciate a powerful and revelatory poem of ‘more-than-human’ world.
Suggestions for improvement:
- Reprise the collection and excise the weakest, least relevant 30% to 40% of the material.
- Editorship, I suppose, has its perquisites, but for the editors to allow themselves each 5 pages of poetry — twice the average allotment and equivalent to, or greater than, the space provided for notables such as Theodore Roethke, Denise Levertov, William Carlos Williams, Wendell Berry, and Jane Hirschfield — seems disproportionate.
- Consider including some of the missing/forgotten poets noted above. It may not be pure coincidence that many of the missing poets are not academics — MFA chairs, for instance — but folks who have lived other lives — lives like most of the poets in the historical section.
- Consider reorganization. The Historical / Contemporary division works reasonably well, as does ordering the historical poets by birth date [although it’s not clear why, for instance, Denise Levertov and James Dickey (each 1923-1997) are placed in the historical section, while Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) and Richard Hugo (1923-1982) were placed in the contemporary section]. The reader’s sense of historical flow and poetic evolution would be improved by ordering the contemporary poets by birth date as well. The current ordering is arbitrarily alphabetical. Another suggestion for communicating historical relevance: include publication dates with the poems.
- Finally, I’d think about placing the bios with the poets’ works rather than isolated as Contributor’s Notes way at the back of the collection. Easily accessible biographical information could give useful context to the poets’ works. In fact, something other than the standard 50-60-word litany of awards, publications, academic placements — say a brief statement of ecological perspectives or values — could enrich what has become a largely bloodless bio-ritual.
In summary: The Ecopoetry Anthology is a useful, if occasionally indulgent, reference work. There are gems and seeds scattered widely among plastic bags and flip-flops. May the editors employ another round or two of editing in subsequent efforts. We readers will appreciate it.
About the reviewer: Bill Yake’s poetry has been published in Wilderness Magazine, Wild Earth, Fine Madness, Puerto del Sol, the Seattle Review, convolvulus, Willow Springs, and several anthologies. You can view his poems on the Warriorpoet website here. You can also experience a video of one of his poems below.