Eco-poetry (also known as nature poetry or green poetry) has become an increasingly politicised genre within contemporary poetry – and rightfully so. It holds numerous reputations that turn many communities of writers and readers away, such as legacies of colonial, misogynistic and classist discourse or even just the reputation of it being a bit hackneyed and dull; the poetry we endlessly analyse at school to conclude that mountains mean strength, flowers beauty, and the sky freedom. I’m sorry William Wordsworth.
The use of eco-poetry has definitely changed in the contemporary moment – not just because many writers have now reimagined what landscapes and nature might look like (urban or rural, physical or psychological, organic or constructed), but many have also realised the necessity of the artform in face of the climate crisis – harkening to John Shoptaw’s definition of the genre as ‘nature poetry that has designs on us, that imagines changing the ways we think, feel about, and live and act in the world.’
Eco-poetry might seem a little obvious and perhaps ineffective solution to tackling the climate crisis. Sure, a poem from the perspective of a drowning polar bear might be upsetting but would it actually stir a reader to action? Would it form that emotive and empathetic link that speaks of humanity’s relationship to the nonhuman world?
Eco-poetry orientates you in place – it brings alive local landscapes through stories and creative imaginings. A common theme in a lot of contemporary eco-poetry is the influence of folklore, which has a unique quality of simultaneously being localised (the stories of local people and their relationship with the land), and universal (the shared tropes and themes we see in storytelling across the world). Folklore therefore has a significant role in what poet Seán Lysaght sees as ‘puncturing’ boundaries between the personal and communal – or even beyond in realm of human and nonhuman.
I’ve always felt lucky to have come to live in a city famous for its folklore – the Green Man of Nottingham who is both urban and rural: a human being made of leaves, wood, and stories.
Eco-poetry roots you in your environment both physically but also in the way we tell stories to one another. It provides that line of connection to your surroundings that is so necessary in founding a relationship with the natural world: that feeling that you actually belong there.
Folk characters like Robin Hood, or the Green Man are important in eco-poetry because they lend a face to the abstract. They turn non-human or non-physical things like the concept of nature (or the human relationship with it) into something we can actually connect with.Eco-poetry roots you in your environment both physically but also in the way we tell stories to one another. It provides that line of connection to your surroundings that is so necessary in founding a relationship with the natural world: that feeling that you actually belong there.
The importance of eco-poetry and its accessibility is important therefore on two levels: firstly, it allows for the healing of the bonds between human and nonhuman, so necessary in driving an actual desire to resolve the climate crisis. Secondly, notions of ecology, nature or greenness encompass such broad aspects of human life: from how we understand our cultural identities to issues of land ownership, farming, food, gardening, access to outdoor space – and so much more. Eco-poetry needs to be made available for everybody because it is about everybody.
Resources and recommendations:
John Shoptaw, ‘Why Ecopoetry?’
Edward Hirsch, ‘Nature Poetry’
Seán Lysaght, ‘What is Eco-Poetry?’, The Poetry Ireland Review, 103 (2011)
Harriet Staff, ‘The S.L.o.T. Features Ted Rees: ‘Some Notes Regarding the Nature Poem…’.
‘Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman’ by Rebecca Tamas
‘The Grassling’ by Elizabeth Jane Burnett