post #4 in the series, from the preface to my book in progress, Upcycling Ecopoetry

Here’s an intriguing idea.  Poetry’s relative marginalization within the domain of commercial culture gives it freedom and a different kind of power—the ability to negate what passes for “realist” and “practical” majoritarian thinking, including that tech interventions on their own will miraculously fix our climate crisis. Poems are also resistant to brand hype—either being hyped or hyping themselves.  Poets certainly have their own ways of promoting themselves and their favorites, though on a miniscule scale compared to other cultural commodity systems.  But good poems can’t easily be marketed or turned into memes.[i]  They are easily shared, but aren’t the best way to gain as many views or clicks as possible on social media.  Hype, by the way, is derived from hyperbole, the Greek word for purposeful exaggeration.  Poems can use hyperbole, certainly, but usually they do so as a way of mocking the mind-set, something to parody or dismantle.  The shortened version of this meme about marketing, hype, dates from another roaring age of consumerism, the 1920s, when it was understood to mean cheat or swindle.

Poems thrive in burrows and shadows, circulating on a network beneath or on the edges of dominant cultural ecosystems supported by corporate capitalism—just like the mammals did as the Age of the Dinosaurs approached its KT boundary limit.  Like mammals, some poems seem to have evolved more complex brains, tool use, and ways to care for their young.  What happens when today’s cultural dinosaurs lose their powers to control discourse and are unable to adapt to sudden change?  Trading and money-making will always be a part of human society.  But maybe capitalism in the future will need to downsize and accommodate itself to a different world order, just as dinosaurs did when they morphed into birds?[ii]

Deep-time thinking is one thing scientists, artists, and poets all have in common when they’re doing their best work.  Another is being detail-oriented, and not presuming to know where the evidence you focus on will lead you.  You use skills you’ve honed over years, but you don’t prejudge possible outcomes, much less massage those outcomes to meet audience expectations.  I don’t mean that all poems have these powers.  Only the best ones—including those ecopoems that this book seeks to illuminate from within.  

Upcycling Ecopoetry intends to show you many examples of how poetry helps us encounter deep time in the present moment.  And how it ups our problem-solving skills, not by being instrumental (like a tool), but by being both conceptual and visceral.  Poems encourage us to pause, refocus, and reconsider what went wrong and why.  And then to dare to imagine possible cures.  

They also teach us to be comfortable with complexity, to appreciate many things going on, not a single message.  In the poems we’ll read together, we’ll hear expressed not just skepticism but rage, malaise, despair, melancholia, and mourning about the mess we’ve made of things—especially those of us in the carbon-spewing nations of the “developed” Global North.  We’ll read poems that ask what our responsibilities are in the face of the ghastly realities we’ve made.  What resources of strength and compassion can we draw on, and share?  In what ways can poems teach us about sharing agency and building larger, more inclusive communities—including bonding with more-than-human beings?

[i] Poems that have become associated with memes or clichés, such as Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and “Mending Wall,” challenge the ways they’ve been misread on the way to becoming famous.  That is, “The Road Not Taken,” if contemplated carefully, undercuts any boasting that we understand why we made the choices we did.  And the neighbor’s bromide that “good fences make good neighbors” is not a truth promoted by “Mending Wall,” but something the poem slyly mocks.  Case closed.

[ii]  For more on the possible futures of capitalism—a topic irrelevant neither to ecosystems nor to lyric poetry—see in particular upcoming chapters on upcycling and on resisting the “tragedy of the commons.”  These chapters survey contemporary debates on these matters, as well present a few of my own ideas.

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