Ecopoet’s Top 12 Books
In the new anthology “Singing School, Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry” Robert Pinsky tells us poets to go back to the masters to learn. It makes sense. You learn film by studying the masters of film, sculpture by studying the masters of sculpture, the culinary arts by studying their masters, and music by studying masters of music. You learn what the forms are without becoming just an imitator of your contemporaries, which is highly possible if you study them and them alone.
Pinsky warns of the dangers of falling into group-think, of mimicking a voice or style or sensibility because you see it has rewards and you want those same rewards too. Of course the rewards of poetry and particularly eco-poetry have, so far at least, not been great.
Poet activism isn’t exactly a new thing, but in respect to defending nature it almost certainly is. Even poems written long ago that certainly belong in any eco-poetry canon are in the nature of one-offs: outliers in the warrior poetry universe.
It’s only when we get to the last century (in the English language, and particularly, the American tongue) that we find poets whose ecological sensibilities pervade their poetry. The more familiar to us, because still alive, is Gary Snyder, but before Gary there was Robinson Jeffers, and there are others as well.
Besides offering what I view as the 12 most important titles on my bookshelf, I want readers to know they aren’t alone in their concern for the earth or in trying to express that concern in poetry, either as flaming arrows, or something a little less dramatic but still deeply felt.
1) A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold: I first heard about this book from Dave Foreman when the original Earth First! Roadshow stopped in Berkeley. It was part of his stage performance (“The Speech”), specifically the story Leopold tells about encountering a wolf in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico. Leopold was a young ranger and, as he put it, “full of trigger itch”. He and some other rangers were out on horseback when they saw a wolf and two cubs in the distance. I won’t spoil the story by telling what happened next, but it’s a famous story and has been retold many times.
A concept-heavy book with many great quotes and turns of thought, perhaps the most important one is this: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” This book is known as a classic in its field, but I’m tempted to say that’s selling it short. It is literally without peer.
2) Selected Poems by Robinson Jeffers: This small book is a great read and very portable. There are anthology pieces like “Hurt Hawks” and “Shine, Perishing Republic”, as well as many others with the glorious imagery of the rugged California coast.
Jeffers is no simple nature poet, however, as he brings ideas into his poetry, ideas that have not proved popular with some people since he is critical of governments and the human species as a whole. You might think of him as a misanthrope who likes (some) people. He thinks humans are in general too full of themselves, consequently his philosophy he termed “inhumanism”—meaning, I take it, the opposite of “humanism”.
Today he would probably say he was a biocentrist, albeit one deeply distrustful of people. I recommend this book because of its many great poems but also its introduction to Jeffers’ thought, which is perhaps the fresher for being occasionally abrasive.
3) The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey: Widely credited as the inspiration for Earth First! After getting my degree at San Francisco State and supporting myself playing tournament chess for a few years, I was running out of money so I decided to go back to school so I could take advantage of the G.I. Bill. I enrolled in Merritt College in Oakland and signed up for basically every science course they had. I took courses in biology, botany, marine biology, oceanography, geology, paleontology, astronomy, river studies, and desert studies.
One of the books on the reading list for Desert Studies was the acclaimed “Desert Solitaire” by Edward Abbey, which I enjoyed so much that when I finished I went to Cody’s Books (the late, great Berkeley bookstore) to see what else by the author I could find. As it happened the store had just got in a shipment of his latest book, a novel titled “The Monkey Wrench Gang”. It was like no book I had ever read, a comic, rollicking masterpiece about a pride of desert lovers driving around the Southwest, trying to save the desert that they loved. Needless to say the book made a great impression on me, as it did (it turned out) on many other people. Abbey, the thoughtful anarchist and social gadfly, created as memorable a cast of characters as you’ll find in a novel. It would be difficult to imagine an Earth First! appearing on the scene when it did, without it.
4) News of the Universe: Poems of Two-Fold Consciousness by Robert Bly. Looking back over my copy of this ground-breaking anthology I’m reminded of the piquant analysis of western history and thought, particularly as represented by the “Enlightenment”. Bly was getting at a biocentric way of thinking and writing. Bly says most people experienced the world before the Enlightenment as a place of wonder, but after the Enlightenment it became more and more just something to exploit. As Bly puts it, “more and more people were on that boat”. But then, Bly says, there was a push-back. The Romantic poets and others offered counter-argument, and though this remained a minority position for quite a while, given the state of the environment today it’s looking more and more like it’s the correct one.
Besides the essays scattered throughout the book developing these ideas, Bly showers us with poems (in English) from around the world. Poems from the Inuit, Navajo, European nations, and of course the Americas (North and South) show us that the “majority position” is by no means universally accepted. Much of the strength of this book comes from its multiculturalism.
5) Earth Prayers by Elizabeth Roberts, Elias Amidon: Like the Bly anthology, this collection ranges world-wide. Focuses on the spiritual side of things. This book was featured at a reading at Gaia Bookstore, a bookstore in Berkeley that no longer exists but was a favorite of mine. I met the authors there and gave them a copy of the Warrior Poet newsletter I had published. Elizabeth took one look at it and exclaimed “The Work!” That’s when I knew we were on the same page. Gaia bookstore’s name still exists in the Gaia building, which hosts the David Brower Center in downtown Berkeley.
Earth Prayers became a best-seller and remains in print. It is a good size for backpacking (always important to us nature lovers) and has many inspiring prayers and poems gathered from the world’s traditions. There’s also a good lead-in by the authors that give you a better sense of where they’re coming from. Suffice it to say, for them prayer was a way of coming to grips with the environmental crisis and overcoming the heavy sense of depression they felt as they saw nature’s systems crashing all around the world. The poems and prayers in the book are a way of re-connecting to the world, a way of healing the immense hurt that knowledge inflicts. Consequently the book isn’t a downer but a wise companion.
6) Poems for a Small Planet by Robert Pack, Jay Parini: An obvious take-off on the title of the famous “Diet for a Small Planet” by Frances Moore Lappe, the editors make no bones about why they put this book together. It’s the poets’ response to the environmental crisis.
This book is more like a standard poetry anthology. The poems in it are contemporary, with many familiar and unfamiliar names. What makes it different from the aforementioned books is the poets are all American, and all contemporary. There are introductions by both editors that seek to explain why they put the book together in the first place, and while that’s good, it’s their sure eye for picking out what to include that wins me over. Simply put, the poems are a look at what is being written today (well, at the time the book came out, at least), what people’s concerns were, the level of concern, how informed they were about the world around them. A little too big to take backpacking, it’s still an important addition to the warrior poets bookshelf.
7) Wild Song by John Daniel – As a longtime poetry editor for the Wilderness Society’s publication, the poems in his book are drawn from its pages. Anyone who edits a poetry section for an environmental magazine has to straddle two worlds – the world of poetry and the world of the environment. These poems, first published by the Wilderness Society, fit in neatly to the traditions of wilderness and wilderness protection in America. Poets submitting their poems to the magazine did it for a reason – they were attracted to its concerns and work. Consequently if the poems did get published, you know they were going to fit in with that tradition.
Daniel says the poems selected, “…decry ecological injuries, celebrate nature’s beauties and point to its many mysteries, and bear witness to our ever-available opportunity to recognize ourselves as rightful members of the evolutionary flow of earthly life.”
John Daniel is one of very few long-term poetry editors in the field, and that gives this small volume a certain weight. Not the best dimensions for a back pocket, but it fits nicely into the side or front pocket of a backpack.
8) The Gary Snyder Reader: Prose, Poetry, and Translations: Gary Snyder is undoubtedly the most famous eco-poet of our time. He practically created the genre, and this book shows his thinking in both poetry and prose. As a treat, it even recounts the genesis of “Smokey the Bear Sutra”, Snyder’s blend of West, East, and Ecology all in one poem.
I picked this book to represent Snyder because it shows the range of his thought and writing skills better even than his selected poems, his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Turtle Island”, which I also could have chosen, or any of his other books, of which he has many. Anyone interested in a genre called “eco-poetry” absolutely has to experience Snyder’s work.
9) Poetry Comes Up Where it Can by Brian Swann: Brian edited, and I think still edits, the poetry section for The Amicus Journal (now OnEarth) for the NRDC. A terrific book, and very portable.
Brian Swann is the poetry editor of many years for Amicus (now OnEarth), the publication of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Brian details how he got the job in an amusing anecdote, and we are lucky he did since the two collections he created from its pages (this, with an introduction by Mary Oliver, is the second) are both keepers. Of the two, however, this is my favorite, probably because it has so many great poems in it I can’t find anyplace else, not to mention that it fits comfortably in the side pocket of my cargo pants.
10) Can Poetry Save The Earth? by John Felstiner: A scholarly look at American eco-poetry. This is a great book we celebrated at a tribute reading at the Berkeley Ecology Center. The book is more a scholarly work than it is a poetry anthology. So anyone looking for a scholarly approach to American eco-poetry will find this book an indispensable guide to the field. John will quote a few lines in writing about the poet, but then you will have to go to the library to get the rest of the poem. This may turn some readers off, but it does overcome the weakness of the “anthology” approach, which is to select a few favorites or anthology pieces when there is often much more to discover by the individual poet.
The answer to the title’s question is, not by itself, it can’t. But that’s beside the point. Poetry inspires people to act. Poetry also expresses deep-seated emotions, and sometimes those deep-seated emotions get turned into actions in the real world.
11) How to Live on the Planet Earth by Nanao Sakaki – A close friend of Gary Snyder’s, poet, and vagabond, Nanao’s influence in this country is starting to grow; in his native Japan he is already well-known.
I met Nanao at a Rainforest Activists Conference in San Francisco at Fort Mason. He was on a panel and I don’t remember what he said but I remember him being there. I had come to hear him because I had read his book “Break the Mirror” published by Blackberry Press in Maine by Earth First! poet Gary Lawless. I thought it was terrific and wanted to meet him
Lawless published several other of Nanao’s books, and sadly, this is likely to be the last since Nanao, eternal wanderer, is now off walking the star road. Yet he leaves us these impressive poems where we can accompany him on many other walks, some as far away as the other side of the universe. (I should also mention he’s also very funny at times.)
12) Eco-Poetry Anthology by Ann Fisher-Worth, Laura Gray-Street: Finally somebody had to come out with this title. A hefty tome, not suitable for backpacking, but a substantial contribution to the emerging eco-canon.
This is the last book I’ll recommend here. Its breadth is simply breath-taking, and it follows the familiar formula of having an introduction by its editor or editors explaining their take on current eco-poetry, followed by the selections they have made. This is only the most recent contribution to the eco-poetry genre, so stay tuned! We’ll let you know as more cross the Warriorpoets desk.
Date: February 3, 2015