Mudlark Flash No. 90 (2014)

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

Haute Ecology
by Christopher Cokinos

“The test of a ‘politics of poetry’ is,” Barrett Watten asserts, “in the entry of poetry into the world in a political way.” By this Watten means the stance of the poems in relation to dominant culture—preferably an oppositional and linguistically oriented stance—and not, I trust, that they will affect late capitalism. But what if the test is whether poems are change agents? Then, failure everywhere.

George Oppen declared that “if you decide to do something politically, you do something that has political efficacy. And if you decide to write poetry, then you write poetry, not something you hope, or deceive yourself into believing, can save people who are suffering.” Or save animals or save places. Oppen, famously, stopped writing poems during the Great Depression.

Poetry in the United States doesn’t much enter the world in a political way as it simply enters the minds of a few readers, then slips away when the book is closed, the obscure journal page turned, the link clicked off. Of course if a poem or an author lingers in a single mind, who can guess the effects? Did reading Robinson Jeffers and Gary Snyder and Pattiann Rogers make me a more ecologically aware and engaged person? Absolutely. Has this changed the world? Not so much. A nonfiction book on the extinction of several North American birds—a project I labored on for 10 years—has inspired birders, scientists and activists (or so they tell me) but has not slowed the global bloodletting. Still, lacking a degree in ecology or a staff position at an environmental group and being completely unelectable beyond the confines of liberal Tucson, and perhaps even here—not that being elected means anything efficacious—this work and other such is what I do. I’d like to think it’s made a small difference, but of this I can’t be sure. And were I to be sure I would become more insufferable than I already am.

So, in thinking about Greg Wrenn’s provocative and lyrical writing about nature poetry, I have to make clear that I’m not only contending with him (and there is much we agree on, from the desirability of viable commercial fusion power to the need to bear witness to the losses of species and places), I am contending with myself, with futility, with mortality. Charles Altieri has spoken of “matters of grace that are dimensions of our struggles with ourselves rather than with others.” Stanley Kunitz puts it more bluntly: “A poet isn’t going to change the world with even the most powerful of his poems. The best he can reasonably hope for is to conquer a piece of himself.” And, perhaps, to reach a few others caught in struggles of their own.

We are no Thoreaus writing for the next Ghandis, not in our country in this age. Poets are not the unacknowledged legislators of the world. We’re the unpaid interns fired for showing up late. Auden’s correction to Shelley was that the secret police are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and now we may add lobbyists, data-miners, hackers and dark-money billionaires. And a few, thankfully, green entrepreneurs and philanthropists.

We flatter ourselves. There are no life-and-death consequences to our poems, but there are, perhaps, to the time we spend with them. I recall Rick Bass writing about this years ago—the dilemma of spending time as a writer vs. as an activist. We work it out for ourselves. I go through long-wave cycles of civic engagement and deep retreat. I’m emerging from the latter right now, still searching for how to volunteer in a place relatively new to me, Tucson, and the surrounding Sonoran desert and sky-island mountain ranges.

I’m struck by the pleasures of poetry—these difficult articulations—and by the unbridgeable gap between it and public policy. The same is now generally true of literary prose we call nature-and-science writing. I once handed Hillary Clinton a copy of Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature. That didn’t work. (Lately, I’ve been coaching environmental-science graduate students on science-communication skills—a kind of public service I’d like to imagine.) While I believe that the fact of pointlessness is increasingly pleasant under the right circumstances (and horrifying under all other circumstances), I am, like Wrenn, troubled both by climate change and extinction. And I am troubled by the time I spend writing poems, essays and things like this that will be read by only a handful of people, albeit smart people, usually kind people, book-and-critter people, the kind of folks I want to have a drink with, the kind of folks who do not have much power. It’s as though we are addicted to throwing our pages into a wind from nowhere. Things get torn up, soggy, blurred. The time capsule rusts. And I keep writing. My drug for getting the day in order.

Recently, on a trip to Washington, D.C., to give two readings marking the centennial of the death of Martha, the last passenger pigeon—and not to huge crowds, mind you—I found myself walking the National Mall at night, wrestling with my nostalgia for American democracy and my anger at its selling price. The Mall is beautiful at night, and on that cold fall evening my mind went to everything from Robert Lowell (“we have talked our extinction to death”) to the homeless man going to the bathroom in view of the Capitol, the dome covered in scaffolding for some necessary and budgeted repair.

Robert Bly wrote in “Leaping up into Political Poetry” that “the poet’s main job is to penetrate that husk around the American psyche, and since that psyche is inside him (sic) too, the writing of political poetry is like the writing of personal poetry, a sudden drive by the poet inward.” On the page, I’m increasingly interested in rhetorical deflations and temporal/subject linkages and childhood’s inflection on catastrophes—what we might also call change or entropy—and in avoiding what Jed Rasula criticizes in the work of Carolyn Forché and Adrienne Rich: their “awkward...attempts to be politically responsible while at the same time struggling to sustain a swollen poetic intensity.” I want to vivify private subjectivities glancing off and diving into the natural, technological and, yes, political materiality of these two centuries, from meadowlarks to “The Twilight Zone” to franked mail. I’m not sure that it matters. But it passes some time. It seems less dangerous than other pursuits.

Believing that poetry, here and now, has political efficacy is like believing a mime can extinguish a fire by imitating a hose. The question is not so much, as Wrenn has it, about “what kind of nature poetry is ethically permissible to write now that we’re at 400 parts per million (and rising) of atmospheric CO2.” The question is whether it’s ethically permissible to spend any time on this kind of work at all, knowing that it makes so little difference to the atmosphere itself.

Yet here I am, here we are, compatriots writing to the blue void. Rough music, inefficient, lovely. Then, away from the desk, something else, like planting native grasses in a canyon, a better song for the world. In both places, I’ll wish that it were more. That it were better.

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, 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.

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by Greg Wrenn

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by Christopher Cokinos

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