'Love, love, my season.'
by Gillian Osborne
Following the Advisory Board Roundtable that launched the Conference on Ecopoetics, Charles Altieri, who later in the weekend led a seminar on “Ecopoetics and Affect,” asked a question: “Is ecopoetics a way to go beyond ethics to love?” (A paraphrase.) This question acknowledged a legacy of ethically motivated poetics—or “poethics” as Joan Retallack would say—while at the same time inquiring about something potentially far gushier and subject driven. And in fact, this possibility of an ecopoetics motivated by or productive of love, or loves, resurfaced throughout the weekend.
Robert Hass responded to Altieri’s question during the same Q&A by invoking Wordsworth’s “most watchful power of love,” which, early in the Prelude, registers both “transitory qualities,” “permanent relations,” and “difference” in the passing seasons. Wordsworth’s love is an acute attention, seeing what would otherwise go unseen, inviting the object world of matter to infiltrate the poet’s heart and mind and leave its mark. This attentive love serves an instructive function, driving the “Growth of a Poet’s Mind” that the Prelude chronicles. The pinnacle of what the poet learns from watching and loving is the exact hinge within his self that swings open toward the sublime.
Wordsworth’s sublime has, as Keats quipped, an “egotistical” component. Though it arises from attention to “manifold distinctions,” and though it thrills to inhuman splendors—nighttime waters and looming rocks—this loving mind loves in service of its own fulfillments. From the perspective of ecopoetics, Wordsworth’s Romantic love seems to pose both a possibility and a problem. On one hand, the poet attends. The poet turns toward materials. On the other hand, the poet puffs himself with what he learns there. And though the sublime is double edged—terror and awe—the threat that sublimity momentarily posits to the self is compensated by a more capacious mind on the flip side. Wordsworth’s watchful love seems to long for experiences beyond the confines of a self while at the same time learning to draw the parameters of its longing in ever bolder ink.
If love, particularly for the inhuman, seems rife with these complications about the role of the lover in relation to her beloved, desire somehow seems more straightforward. Desire demands a body; it abjures the purely intellectual or linguistic. Desire touches the earth while love seems at risk of soaring off. Fittingly, desire showed up more frequently than “love” in discussions throughout the weekend. During the satellite event at Davis, in response to a question (Angela’s!) about the role of embodiment in ecopoetics, Jonathan Skinner questioned the limits of desire. Can I feel desire for a bird, a blade of grass? (See Angela’s post on “Queering ecopoetics” for more on desire and embodiment in ecopoetics.)
In his presentation on “Outsider Poetics” for the panel “The Book as Ecopoetic Instrument,” Tyrone Williams seemed interested in expanding the telic motions of desire toward something whose purpose isn’t necessarily satisfaction. He described a poetics that would participate in “a gift economy, one which spirals away from each preceding giver towards another forthcoming recipient,” an economy “analogous to the structure of desire even as it exceeds its form.” At the end of his paper, he called this excessive structure love: “Imagine, if we can, an ecopoetics untethered from the earth, a body no longer bounded by the concept of a globe or sphere. Imagine a body adrift from embodiment, a book, like love, unblurbed…like love, unblurbed…like love, unblurbed…like love, unblurbed.” If desire can be located, its trajectories charted, Williams presents a love (a body, a book) that is unmoored, resistant to paraphrase, pervasive. One might even say “ecological.”
In The Ecological Thought (2010), Timothy Morton tugs at the boundaries of “ecology”:
“This book argues that ecology isn’t just about global warming, recycling, and solar power— and also not just to do with everyday relationships between humans and nonhumans. It has to do with love, loss, despair, and compassion. It has to do with depression and psychosis. It has to do with capitalism and with what might exist after capitalism. It has to do with amazement, open-mindedness, and wonder. It has to do with doubt, confusion, and skepticism. It has to do with concepts of space and time. It has to do with delight, beauty, ugliness, disgust, irony, and pain. It has to do with consciousness and awareness. It has to do with ideology and critique. It has to do with reading and writing. It has to do with race, class, and gender. It has to do with sexuality. It has to do with ideas of self and the weird paradoxes of subjectivity. It has to do with society. It has to do with coexistence” (2).
Love launches this expansive litany of ecological concerns, a list that, on some level, also reads like an invocation of almost everything the humanities have ever cared about. The other half of Altieri’s question during the advisory board Q&A was: “Aren’t we too embarrassed by love for its powers to be effective?” (Again, I’m paraphrasing.) By “we” Altieri meant academics, or poets within the academy, a job description that certainly didn’t account for all the participants at the conference. But one of the reasons love seems potentially embarrassing for theorists, or poets, or activists, is that as a concept or practice love retains theological overtones, and much of the thought, poetry, and action that otherwise seems to have influenced ecopoetics arises from otherwise secular concerns.
Within religious contexts, love is offered as a foundational affective condition, from which ethics inevitably evolves. Christians call such a fundamental love “agape,” divine love, and Buddhists cultivate practices of “loving kindness” through meditation on the interdependent and causally involved nature of all living and nonliving things. It is this love for the nonhuman in particular (or, this nonhuman love if you think of agape as something deriving from an inhuman being), that seems to have found its way into some strains of ecological thinking. C.S. Lewis begins The Four Loves with an essay on “Likings and Loves for the Sub-Human” (in which, among other things, he discusses how a love for strawberries is continuous with a love for humans). Morton thanks Tsoknyi Rinpoche, his Buddhist teacher, for influencing the ideas that went into The Ecological Thought (and discusses this teacher’s work on his blog). Buddhism is a clear influence in the work of Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger, eco-poets of an earlier generation.
Love also came up, perhaps surprisingly, on the panel “Elegy, Mourning, Melancholia,” presided over by John Beer, Catherine Owen, Margaret Ronda, and Russell Stone, and in particular through the connections these thinkers drew between two seemingly antithetical poetic traditions—ode and elegy, the poem of praise or the poem of mourning. Recalling Ovid as a poet not only of metamorphose and myth, but also of sexuality, a smuttiness which later publishers felt they needed to iron out in order to get him back into print, Stone recalled the fact that “elegiac meter” in Roman poetry was originally “erotic meter,” so that poems of longing and poems of loss might be thought of as emerging in fossil form from the same rock. Margaret Ronda read Juliana Spahr’s “Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache” as a now canonical instance of ecopoetics, in which praise for and pleasure in the environment opens onto mourning, and the poem’s speaker recognizes her culpability in the destruction she witnesses. And Catherine Owen questioned whether “elegy” was an appropriate mode for poems about the environment, since elegy might anticipate losses that have not yet occurred, rather than saying what is or what might be.
My title, “Love, love, my season,” comes from the last line of Sylvia Plath’s “The Couriers,” a poem in Ariel. The mid-century “confessional” poetry that Plath’s work is aligned with is in many ways the exact antithesis of more recent forms of ethically driven poetics that have torn at the edges of lyric, unsettling the self overhearing itself at lyric’s center. But Plath’s poem also feels complexly “ecological.” The love she bears here is hardly Wordsworth’s ballooning attention. Nor does it seem fully reconciled with the human. Its disappointments and disturbances overflow, or are penetrated. And the Romantic correspondence that the title gestures to, a world in which nature can be “read” is short-circuited, its wires crossed. Love has exposed the unreadable, “A disturbance in mirrors” rather than a neat reflection. In Plath, these reverberations ring with pain and self-splintering, though love has set the compression of the poem in motion. But Morton aligns the “realms of the unspeakable” opened onto by the ecological thought with “realms of unspeakable love,” sapping a voice from these moments of recognition (x). If ecopoetics leans toward love, or spills from it, that “love” seems hardly a “ever-fixed mark.” Rather, loves. Love, love, and seasons.
Field notes from the 2013 Conference on Ecopoetics