Learning to Love Creation
The Religious Tenor of Contemporary Ecopoetry
Although “nature poetry” resists definition,1 most of the current writing assigned to this category can be readily distinguished from its nineteenth-century antecedents. Particularly since World War I, confidence in the intelligibly providential design of all creaturely existence has faded. So has Transcendental faith in the emblematic spirituality of every natural fact. Although earlier writers had certainly reflected on humanity's social ills, injustices, and assaults on the earth, they had not found reason to image the accelerated extinction of species or planetary annihilation. As Denise Levertov remarks in a poem titled “A Hundred a Day” that begins “Dear 19th century,” premoderns lived in an “unconscious sanctuary” from the knowledge that one hundred species of plants and animals could fall or be driven into extinction each day. Still comforted by “the illusion of endless time to reform, if not themselves, then the world,” they were inclined to regard “Nature” as something “to be marveled at, praised and conquered, / a handsome heiress.” Victorian biological debate “concerned / the origin and subsequent behaviour of species, not their demise.”2
Predictably, modernist and contemporary poetry reflects the demise of such assumptions. Largely picturesque impressions of natural scenes have given way to grittier images of vegetable decay, animal gore and predation, or human destruction of landscapes and ecosystems. Excrement, vultures, microbes, roadkill—all of these find a place in works by poets such as Gary Snyder, Mary Oliver, or Maxine Kumin. Garbage(i993), a poetic collection by A. R. Ammons, graphically illustrates the shift.