Editor’s Note: Greg Wrenn’s essay, “The 23rd-Century Nature Poem,” originally appeared in American Poetry Review, May/June 2014, and has been republished in Poetry Daily online. Christopher Cokinos’ essay, “The 21st-Century Nature Poem,” a/k/a Mudlark Flash No. 90 (2014), was written in response to Greg Wrenn. When it appeared in Mudlark I invited Wrenn to respond to Cokinos. You can read his response, One Whale Shark Eye, here in Mudlark too. Finally, to round out their exchange, I invited Cokinos to respond, once again, to Wrenn, which he has done in Haute Ecology. WS
There is both cogency and confusion in Greg Wrenn’s recent essay, “The 23rd-Century Nature Poem.” It makes some claims. It moves beautifully. It is so mistaken.
The cogency comes in asking the question whether one can ethically write (and, presumably, read) a nature poetry of praise, a poetry that, as Wrenn puts it, “idealizes the natural world while photoshopping out any hint of our current crisis.” He says, “Such poems may no longer be defensible. They might be Beauty, but they aren’t also Truth—are they perhaps pretty fabrications, ones with life-and-death consequences?” It is an understandable concern, and his poster-child is, of course, Mary Oliver. Yet Wrenn unironically invokes a poet who works in that very mode: Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose “The Windhover” Wrenn recalls while on an ocean dive, lines from which lead Wrenn to remember a report on dolphins sold as shark bait. So it would seem that past poems of praise can lead a reader to a wider mindfulness. Why not contemporary ones too? It’s not as though there weren’t issues of industrialization and social justice during Hopkins’ time. But they don’t show up in “The Windhover.” Is this a problem?
Praise is a kind of argument and can lead us to a richer awareness of what is extolled—and therefore what sullies. So, Mary Oliver, you may keep writing even if you don’t invoke the IPCC. Others can do that. There’s a vast democracy of nature poetry.
Wrenn calls for a poetry of context but the context is one of crises rooted in a lack of engagement with deep time; a too-cursory consideration of nature poetry as a genre; personal shame; a misunderstanding of the need for deep, systemic changes in an economy guided by a global oligarchy vs. the inefficacy of lifestyle changes; the rhetoric of First World calls for global sacrifice; and the chimera of species-wide consciousness shifts.
I believe the essay gets it wrong from the start. Wrenn says, “We live in a dying world of immeasurable beauty.” It is more accurate to say that we are all bound to die in a living world—and that its beauty is something assigned to it by human consciousness. 99.9% of all the species that have ever lived are extinct, but the current human-driven extinction crisis does not threaten the persistence of life on the Earth for at least another two billion years. Once arisen, life has not been extinguished, even during the End-Permian, the greatest mass-extinction event in planetary history, at which time more than 90 percent of marine species and at least 70 percent (or more) of terrestrial species were wiped out.
I am not saying that we should ignore the anthropogenic forces driving extinction to some 1,000 times above the background rate in the fossil record. What I’m saying is that we need to be aware of the wider contexts of extinction and understand that all species will eventually vanish. So our actions to stem the tide of extinction are enmeshed in a network of values—ecological, economic, political, psychological, aesthetic—and should not be seen as strictly arising from a catastrophist view that if we do nothing the planet will become barren. It will not. Cleared ecological niches give rise to new species. The rise of oxygen in the primordial atmosphere mass-extincted a microbial biome. The death of the dinosaurs meant the rise of the mammals.
When Wrenn says that he wishes to produce work that “praises nature while on some level mourning the passing of entire species and ecosystems...” I recognize—and to a degree admire—the impulse. But I don’t think he sufficiently gestures to the flock of poets who have worked and are working in this mode, from A.R. Ammons to Alison Hawthorne Deming in the recent U.S. tradition alone. There is no discussion of the contemporary ecopoetics movement. Yet when he does engage with other poets, I am sometimes perplexed. For example, I’m not sure which Wordsworth he is reading when he says that the Romantic writer’s work is part of “an innocent ecopoetics to which we wish we could return.” There is a complicated history of the pastoral to contend with, and writers in that mode, including Wordsworth, had some explicit and implicit perspectives on the Industrial Revolution. And which “we” is he talking about here?
When Wrenn criticizes (as so many have) William Stafford’s “Traveling in the Dark” as sentimental, I have to disagree. I think it’s a poem that illustrates the moral difficulties of environmental praxis. After all, the speaker has to kill the unborn deer to clear the road, to save other lives. This is deeply unsentimental, a synecdoche for the kind of environmental management—triage, if you will—that we must engage in today if we wish to recover the Holocene. The irony is that we need more not less human intervention in order to end the Anthropocene.
Wrenn works hard to own his complicity, which is laudable. We all have an hypocrisy footprint. But self-laceration fails to understand, as Nobel Laureate and physicist Robert B. Laughlin has said, that the Earth “doesn’t notice when you turn down your thermostat and drive a hybrid car.” That too is not an excuse for inaction. But it’s a fact. We make the decisions we make and some will applaud or criticize but all the cloth bags at all the Whole Foods stores in the world will not be enough to make rapid, massive changes in vast sectors of the economy, primarily energy production and transportation. Wrenn’s essay, while beautifully written, makes me yearn for less life-style hand-wringing and more statistics about, say, the relative health risks of nuclear power plants vs. coal-fired generation. Perhaps we need a poetics of technological challenge, a more sober and humane futurism? Guilt is becoming deeply unhelpful.
So too is blame. Wrenn engages in cultural othering while criticizing manta-ray hunting as “senseless” (the species is used in “traditional Chinese medicine”) and in how the species ends up as “cheap filler for shark-fin soup in Asia.” I too abhor the reckless and unregulated hunting that is draining the seas of such life, and the claims made for the curative effects of endangered species products are indefensible both scientifically and morally. But this hunting does in fact make sense to those doing the hunting—even if we find it repellant—and First World finger-pointing often hardens the very actions it targets. Trying to enter a state of negative capability regarding those we criticize from other cultures, especially on environmental issues, is difficult but necessary.
Then again perhaps it will all be okay because humanity could just shift its consciousness. Wrenn’s essay contains multiple imagined personal and species-wide epiphanies, and he quotes Scott Russell Sanders, who believes, “We will require a shift in consciousness as radical as any mutation in our evolutionary history.” Left unexplored is that mutation is a genetic and unconscious process. But this line of thought is not new. Wrenn might have swapped out any number of quotes from other High Moralists of American nature writing, such as tobacco farmer Wendell Berry. These writers have brought us necessary doses of humility and many fine pieces of literature but their continued invocation of some future shift in consciousness rings hollow after all these decades, especially as these comfortable writers engage in a call for “sacrifice,” a word that hasn’t gained much traction as a way to handle our various problems. (It’s time to set down the Transcendentalists and those in the standard canon of American nature writing and instead pick up Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, Kate Hayles, Kim Stanley Robinson, Gywneth Cravens, Mark Lynas and “The Death of Environmentalism.”)
So are those “billions of beings willing to make the necessary economic and social sacrifices” in order to find our way to a zero-carbon world? No. And, strikingly, no details about those sacrifices are outlined, which might be a tacit nod to how this rhetoric of scarcity continues to fail the mainstream environmental movement. Should we ask the poor of the Third World to abstain from the quality-of-life that we in the First World have enjoyed since the quite problematic Industrial Revolution? We don’t need sacrifice. We don’t even need a shift in consciousness.
What needs to change is the attitudes of many—from hypocritical liberals such as Wrenn and myself to self-important Congressional staffers—regarding massive, innovative and, yes, risky technological approaches that, like it or not, are what we and the biosphere now need to get through the climate-and-accelerated-extinction bottle-neck of our own making. We need to embrace heresies that we otherwise would have comfortably poo-pooed in former years of four seasons. Wrenn himself says we should “implement carbon sequestration technology.” He does not develop this point further, which is unfortunate, because, like him, I am trying to find my way to a poetics of nature and context but, for me, the context is one, in large measure, derived from encounters with technological ruin and optimism, with the tool-making tradition of Homo sapiens as applied to our contemporary concerns... a poetry (and prose) that looks at everything from geoengineering to voluntary modifications to our genome in order to reduce resource consumption. We need a bit more science fiction these days and a little less Emerson.
We really are not trying to save the Earth, which will do just fine till the sun begins to move into its red giant phase. Life abides. What kind of life abides is now a matter of human decision-making. What we are trying to save is the Holocene. Denise Levertov once wrote that political poems can only change one reader at a time. Ditto, poems of praise. So here I am in agreement with Wrenn: We must try to increase “our capacity for empathy.” It’s slow cultural work. But singing songs to one another is another technical innovation we’ve made to manage our ennui, our mistakes, our heartbreak, our time. One reader might be moved to help change her community at some scale for the better after reading someone else’s ode. For that we should continue our songs of praise and craft ever-more complicated songs of complications.
Christopher Cokinos is the author of three nonfiction books: Hope is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds (Tarcher/Penguin, 2000), The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars (Tarcher/Penguin, 2009) and, most recently, Bodies, of the Holocene from Truman (2013). His poetry chapbook Held as Earth is out from Finishing Line (2014). He has new poems in Terrain.org, december, Berkeley Poetry Review, Western Humanities Review and New Delta Review, along with nonfiction and criticism in the Los Angeles Times, Orion and Extrapolation. He directs the Creative Writing Program at the University of Arizona, where he is also a 2014-2015 Udall Center Environmental Policy Fellow.
>> One Whale Shark Eye: My Response to Christopher Cokinos
by Greg Wrenn