ecopoiesis (n): The establishment of an artificially assembled, self-sustaining ecosystem on a lifeless planet.

poiesis (n): Creative production, esp. of a work of art; an instance of this.


I offer, as always, an entry title from the Oxford English Dictionary — one which will help launch a discussion with friend and fellow thinker, Corey Spaley, over at PAX AMERICANA. We’re trying to discover/come to/complicate some of the ideas surrounding ecopoetics and the implications for an ecopoetics in our current state of environmental crisis. Our respective interests span a pretty wide distance, so the outcome (at the moment) is unforeseeable… we’ll just roll with it and see what happens.

In so many ways (I think) any poem or poetic project is an ecopoiesis–an artificially assembled, self-sustaining system on the otherwise inert page (or more recently, the screen). We build the poem with language, punctuation, syntax, and any number of lexical materials. The poem’s elements interact with themselves and their environment in the way the components of an ecosystem do. The language of the poem requires room, and white space and the reader (the environment) take up as much responsibility for meaning as the words themselves.

To me, this is not a metaphorical proposition. Poem and/or poetic projects simply seem to function this way.

In one sense this description of the poem seems to indicate that poets/poems are particularly well-positioned to respond to the eco-issues our world is facing at this current moment. In another sense, that description is complicated by the urgency (or lack of urgency) to open up that self-sustaining system, to give the poem/project agency that is not self-contained, to a thing that is capable of resonating beyond and outside of itself and the intimate moment that is shared between poem, poet, and reader. In other words, what can a poem do? What should a poem do?

As James Engelhart describes in his “The Language Habitat:  an Ecopoetry Manifesto” over at Octopus Magazine, “The ecopoem is connected to the world, and this implies responsibility” and as Christopher Arigo states in his “Notes Toward an Ecopoetics” over at How2 “…ecopoetics is in tension with the numerous disciplines that surround it—by necessity, the ecopoet is an interdisciplinary creature, whose purview includes science and the arts, though neither are mutually exclusive,” and as Jonathan Skinner states in the introduction to the 2006-2009 Ecopoetics “Let [the term] ecopoetics not serve as yet another form of branding… [w]e would hope that the term continue to be used with uncertainty and circumspection. That it ask and be asked the hard questions about language, representation, efficacy, ethics, community and identity that smart readers and makers ask of all poetics… [t]hat it attend to the walk as much as the talk,” the call to action, it seems, is one indication of its usefulness.

The definition of ecopoetry is thus, necessarily, elusive. We can sense that it both mimics and challenges natural systems, that it reaches beyond nature poetry, that it attaches itself to an ethics and an ethos of environmental concern, and that it crosses the boundaries of discipline and makes use of knowledge from outside the poet observer to inform and provide momentum for the work (not, I’ll say, for the individual poet, necessarily)… but what does it look like? What does it do? How does it engage with or interact with technological advances in the poetry world and beyond? How do we recognize an ecopoem? Maybe this dialogue will help us (begin to) find out.

One thought on “ecopoiesis (n): The establishment of an artificially assembled, self-sustaining ecosystem on a lifeless planet.

  1. Pingback: Beyond Goodwill and Language: Why Ecopoetics Should Embrace Policy Wonks « Pax Americana


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