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Poetry & Environment - The Emergence of Eco-Criticism

Nature and earth have always been an outlet for emotions offered to artists and writers as a vast expanse of indulgence as well as submergence. This magnified emotion of attachment, loss and immortality towards nature, has often been reflected and explored by the poets and novelists, which gave them the title of a ‘Romantic’. However, when this feeling drew attention from a critical faculty of intellectuals, it came to be known as Green Studies or Eco-Criticism.

There are several studies in this field which tend to highlight that eco-criticism emerged as a drift in literary studies only after the 1980s in the USA and early 1990s in the UK. It is a broad way for literary and cultural scholars to investigate the global ecological crisis through a transcending intersection of literature, culture, and the physical environment.

The pioneer or the father of this theory in the USA, Cheryll Glotfelty, proposed that "eco-criticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment." He also noted in the introduction to ‘The Eco-criticism Reader’, “just as feminist criticism examines language and literature form a gender-conscious perspective, and Marxist criticism brings an awareness of modes of production and economic class to its reading of texts, environmental critics explore how nature and the natural world are imagined through literary texts.”

So what is the difference between Romanticism and Eco-criticism ?

Literary studies witnessed a paradigm shift towards the end of the twentieth century when nature writing got a new dimension. Before which, contemporary criticism was based on socio-centric, historical or psychological issues. With the publication of two seminal works- Environmental Imagination and Ecocriticism Reader, both in 1996, a new theory called eco-criticism came out as an academic discipline. Nature writing prevailed long before eco-criticism came into existence and it got its momentum during the Romantic Age when most of the poets wrote using the framework of “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. Being dissatisfied with the surrounding world, the Romantic poets looked back to the glorious ages of the past and search imputes for writings when their imagination got recollected in tranquility. So it is nature and its quintessence which became an important nexus for the romantics.

Gradually, nature writing began to wane during the Victorian conflict of doubt and faith but the latter half of the twentieth century witnessed again an inkling to nature writing with environmental issues rising in literature. There is a wide gap of almost two centuries between the movements. Yet there are some similarities that validate eco-criticism being a reappraisal of romanticism in a broader sense. The rudiments of eco-criticism are found in the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelly, Clare and many other poets of the romantic age.

Literary responses to environmental concerns are as old as the issues themselves. Deforestation, air pollution, species endangerment, wetland loss, animal rights, and rampant consumerism have all been appearing as controversial issues in western literature for hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years, creating anxiety amongst people around the globe.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;-

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

-William Wordsworth

These words by Wordsworth elucidate with a sense of lament that the world we are all headed towards or are already living in, is too full of us human beings. He mourns over the furious race of urbanisation in the name of growth and development, claiming that we can’t escape the hectic hustle and bustle of everyday life to be able to stop, reflect and appreciate nature.

While eco-criticism has recently emerged as an important theoretical discourse, it is often associated most readily with American literature in relation to concepts of frontier and wilderness, or with periods such as the Romantic era when a certain construction of nature was at the heart of many writers' aesthetic projects. The only difference is that the environmental disorder which is the prime concern of the eco-poets was absent during the Romantic Period.

Factually, eco-criticism is rethinking nature in view of the global environmental crisis.

Emergence of Eco-Poetry

The dimensions of eco-poetics is quite widespread in terms of varying understandings and execution.

For some, eco-poetics is the making and study of pastoral poetry, or poetry of wilderness and deep ecology. The core principle of eco-criticism is deep ecology which pays equal importance to all organisms irrespective of their instrumental value. While some argue that this is of the kind that explores the human capacity for becoming animal, as well as humanity’s ethically challenged relation to other animals. It also argues to be poetry that confronts disasters and environmental injustices, including the difficulties and opportunities of urban environments. For yet others, eco-poetics is not a matter of theme, but of how certain poetic methods model ecological processes like complexity, non-linearity, feedback loops, and recycling.

To fairly condense this dynamic kaleidoscope of viewpoints, it may be more helpful to think of eco-poetics as a form of site-specificity— to shift the focus from themes to concerns, anthropologies to institutional critique of “green” discourse itself, and to an array of practices converging on the oikos, the planet earth which is the only home our species currently knows.

Indian nature poets of the late twentieth century renegotiate the relationship of poetry to nature by seeking to avoid both nostalgia for a supposed poetic golden age when transparency and transcendence were available to the lyric poet, and the sense of irony which would call into question any articulation of a coherent self.

In the current critical climate, one's reaction to contemporary nature poets might be that they hark back to what some may feel are outdated modes of romanticism whereby an unquestioning beneficial relationship of nature to humanity is posited.

Bigger than earth, certainly,

higher than the sky,

more unfathomable than the waters

is this love for this man…

Kurunthokai 3, Poet Thevakulathār, Kurinji thinai – What She said

This vastness of landscapes woven into a beautiful tapestry of love and emotion describe not just the unfathomable love for a man but also explores the depths of the overarching universe.

the river has water enough

to be poetic about

only once a year

and then it carries away…

-A.K. Ramanujan

Ramanujan’s distress for the unsung river which dries every summer is very poignant yet significant. He calls the river poetic with an abundance of water and flow only once a year before the natural reservoirs dry up due to human apathy and mindlessness of throwing away all sorts of garbage in it without giving a second thought to its pollution and other ill effects.

Whereas traditional form of Japanese poetry, known as haiku, focuses on one brief moment in time, employing a provocative colourful imagery, with a sudden moment of enlightenment and illumination.

An old silent pond...

A frog jumps into the pond, splash!

Silence again.

-Matsuo Basho

After killing a spider,

how lonely I feel

in the cold of night.

-Masaoka Shiki

These haiku poetry are a fragment of the writer’s thought in awareness and attention wrapped in a moment of silence and pause. It makes one think over on important issues with a calming effect of that of a summer breeze. My personal attempts of writing haiku, abolishing the traditional form of five-seven-five syllables arrangement and acknowledging the format of a modern haiku, I have tried to exhibit my thoughts on matters that one must ponder on before upholding the gruesome tasks of uprooting trees and forests, affecting a diverse ecosystem in land, air and water.

The yellow hornbill,

Returns home

In the hollow of a tree

A yellow hornbill in the Western Ghats of India makes its home in the tree’s hollow where the female roosts with her young ones. The thread of words, from home to hollow, is of significance to me as one finds his home in emptiness and void, always to return to.

A leaf picked,

By a shallow stream

Under little frogs croak

We are often unaware of the significance of the leaf litter on the forest floor, where one leaf offers shelter to various forms of life. One stone upturned or one leaf stomped upon can destroy a small world full of life, their cries unheard in the rustling of the leaves and the ripples in the stream.

Once a lush forest,

When summer breeze blows,

Swing bare branches of a tree.

This poem is a direct take on thick green forests which are now absent because of deforestation and changes in the land use patterns.There now swings the dry bare branches of a lifeless tree absent of its fragile leaves.

Eco-poetry as opposed to other art and literary forms –

These poems in an ecological framework reflect the past and the present with a mirror of future in just a few lines. Poetic approaches provide a sense of respite but leave us with a troubled mind clouded with restlessness and nonacceptance. Eco poetry investigates—both thematically and formally—the relationship between nature and culture, language and perception. Poetry, like any other form of art, feels fresh and new one can always come back to, and so is our nature and its ecology. Poetry doesn’t simply supplement the rational intellect, but provides inherently and sometimes incommensurable forms of insight. Because its meanings are neither quantitative nor verifiable, poetry may offer different, subtler and more complex expressions than the language of information and commerce. Through poetry, one can although document what is lost and what lies ahead; it also calls for an action to raise our voices and not let the bounty of nature remain captured in words and images, drowning in our misuse and derangement.

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