Legacy of the Shamans
The Earth Poetry Manifesto
Allow me to introduce myself. I am a poet by vocation, 66 years old, born and raised right here on Planet Earth. “Stephen Wing” is my pen name, and something more. My father’s name is Wingeier, from the Schweizer-Deutsch language of Switzerland. In English it means “eagle” or “vulture,” depending on which Swiss person you ask. Legally that is my name too, but many years ago my father graciously gave me his consent to change the name I go by in the world. So Wing is the name I have chosen not just for writing, but for living.
Though at the time I only vaguely grasped why, I chose a name not from the human world but from the world of nature. Like other poets I write poems of many different kinds, on many different subjects, but one particular kind of poetry has gradually taken on form and substance beneath my feet to become a spiritual path of sorts: poetry that links the human and natural worlds, reminding me that they are not two worlds after all, but one.
If it seems like a stretch to liken the writing of poems to a religious or personal discipline such as yoga or meditation, look around. How did we reach a point in human evolution where our way of life and livelihood now threatens irreversible damage to the biosphere we depend on to live? We got here by forgetting what our indigenous ancestors understood: life on Planet Earth is itself a spiritual path. Our everyday choices as individuals are moral choices, forks in that path; the same is true for our choices as a society. Every person’s life and vocation is a spiritual path, whether we are aware of it or not.
Long ago certain ancestors of ours innocently chose a promising fork in the path called “civilization.” That path gradually left behind traditional indigenous religion, with its sense of a moral responsibility to live in balance with nature. Eventually the path of civilization left religion behind entirely, and then morality itself, to became a purely secular path. We have now reached the inevitable endpoint of that trajectory, where under a secular doctrine called “economics,” amoral and even immoral choices win the highest honors and rewards among both individuals and societies.
Poets are supposed to be observers, not commentators; witnesses, not advocates; aesthetes, not activists. Taking sides is against the rules of academic detachment. But we live in a desperate time, when the future of human civilization depends on each and every human finding a way to help change its course. Even the poets. Or, perhaps, especially the poets.
= + =
Poetry in the postmodern age is a respectable branch of the entertainment industry. Among the many entertainment options in any city are anything from old-fashioned poetry readings to amateur open mikes to fast-moving, competitive poetry slams. Meanwhile, in the form of hip-hop – “spoken word” with a beat – poetry has exploded into the mainstream. And an argument could be made that the lyrics of popular music have always been poetry, especially along the fringes of commercial viability.
But poetry has a long history, and an even longer prehistory. The roots of poetry, like those of every other modern art form, go back to the late Paleolithic, the Old Stone Age, 50,000 years ago and more. The earliest written records are barely over 5,000 years old, so for most of its long life, poetry was an oral tradition, the original “spoken word,” handed down through many generations.
Our Paleolithic ancestors lived in nomadic tribal bands, hunting and gathering for a living, inhabiting a wild landscape shaped by glaciation and continental drift. The cave paintings, petroglyphs, stone carvings, and clay figurines they left behind are clues to a mystery. Art, these relics tell us, evolved as an essential component of human consciousness. Tools and weapons and clay vessels helped prehistoric hominids survive. But painting, sculpture, drama, music, dance, and poetry helped them to become human.
The arts were not invented for entertainment, however. Life in the Paleolithic was anything but boring. Our ancestors lived immersed in a world that was alive with danger and mystery and magic. Life was a miracle they witnessed all around them every day, and they owed their lives to the daily sustenance it provided. The cycles of sun, moon and stars, winter, spring, summer and fall, birth, adolescence, old age and death were interconnected parts of a larger cycle that carried them along as it turned.
We call this larger cycle nature, to distinguish it from what later humans have superimposed on it with our boundless, restless energy. But to prehistoric hunter-gatherers, there was no such distinction. The world was alive, it was all one, and humans were part of it – a part no more or less essential than the rest. They saw plants and animals, rocks and waterfalls, mountains and sky as their relatives, as indigenous people still do today, an “extended family” that extended to the stars. Dreams were an inner reflection of the mysteries they saw around them.
It was obvious to our earliest ancestors that nature was not only alive but conscious and intelligent. Just as they themselves lived simultaneously in the material world of the body and a non-material inner world, their nonhuman relatives – even the rocks and the waterfalls – also lived in both realms. The forces and elements of nature possessed both physical substance and an invisible inner dimension. Or, as modern physics would say, both matter and energy, particle and wave.
Translated into English, the non-material dimension of a rock or an animal was a spirit – the same word still used by some for the non-material aspect of a human. The nature spirits communicated with our ancestors through dreams and through visionary experiences induced in many ways: by ingesting psychoactive plants, by fasting, by drumming, dancing and chanting. Humans communicated with the spirits in turn through ritual and art, completing the energy circuit between the inner world of dreams and the outer world of the senses.
Like nature itself, the nature spirits were not always benign. But that was another aspect of the mysterious unity of the cosmos. Sickness and health, death and birth, grief and joy were part of the balance of nature, the same cycle of changes that balanced night and day, winter and summer, sunshine and storm. Ancient tribal religion honored both the creative and destructive faces of Mother Earth.
Were the nature spirits real? Belief in a non-material “spirit world” populated by spirits was universal among ancient peoples around the globe – and still is, wherever indigenous ways of life survive. Science can neither prove nor disprove these beliefs, because by definition, science limits itself to the visible, the tangible, the material. But what if the nature spirits inhabit a non-material fourth dimension of the three-dimensional world, counterpart to the consciousness that mysteriously inhabits the human body? What if “primitive” religion was actually a sophisticated technology for contact between human consciousness and a conscious, intelligent universe, at a deep level where consciousness itself is one unified whole?
The Earth is still here, still inhabited by humans. If these beliefs were ever true, they still are. Psychologist Carl Jung’s concept of the “collective unconscious” might describe that deep place where human nature and wild nature meet and connect. Quantum physicists are now beginning to think that consciousness itself may not be a local phenomenon produced by the human brain, but an energy field similar to the Earth’s magnetic and gravitational fields. But this belief too remains unproven and, I suspect, unprovable.
As prehistoric human tribes migrated across the continents and took up residence in far-flung climates and terrains, each developed its own distinct language, religion, and mythology. But every human language had a word for the mysterious unity of birth and death, spirit and matter, nature and humankind, the all-inclusive web of relationship that wove the cosmos into one: a word we English-speakers translate as sacred.
All of the arts originated not as modes of self-expression, as they are understood today, but as modes of communion with the sacred. The various genres of art were intertwined in a multimedia communal art form called ritual. This was the origin of all religious practice. But other human activities had a sacred dimension as well. Hunting, killing, and eating an animal was an act with deep spiritual significance. Food-gathering, tool-making, mythology, ritual, art, and magic were seamlessly interwoven in a single living fabric which today we call culture – though ours, by comparison, is splintered, disjointed, cacophonous.
Our prehistoric ancestors lived a communal life, sharing everything from storytelling under the stars to the daily work of survival. But as in every culture, individual members of the tribe were born with particular talents. Some were artists, gifted with special abilities to communicate with spirits through the creative imagination. And some were the shamans, the tribal healers.
Like everything else in the ancient world, sickness and healing had a spiritual dimension. The skillful shaman could trace the physical symptoms of illness to a spiritual imbalance between the sick individual – sometimes the entire community – and the natural world. A crucial part of the healing process involved a journey to the spirit world in a dream or trance, from which the shaman would return with a gift from his or her “spirit ally”: a chant, or song. Shamans used herbs and other physical healing modalities in their work, but some believe it was the song that gave these modalities the power to heal. The “power song” of the shaman is the root of what came to be called poetry.
= + =
Unlike most people who choose poetry as a vocation, I did not take the academic route through life. Foolishly, perhaps, I skipped grad school and never applied for a single writing workshop, literary grant, or fellowship. Instead I hit the road and traveled the country by thumb. Eventually I married and settled in Atlanta, found a job, worked on various activist campaigns, joined the boards of two nonprofits. Though I never stopped writing poems and actively sharing them, I only intermittently made the sustained effort to submit my work to literary journals that seems to be the standard route to recognition as a poet.
My college major was English Composition, not in poetry but in fiction. In all the English classes I took over 16 years of schooling, I never found poetry all that exciting to read. It seemed to exist in a world of its own that never quite touched mine. As an English major, I learned to scan its meter, map its rhyme scheme, analyze its symbolism, decipher its literary allusions, and write a convincing term paper relating its themes and motifs to the historical backdrop or literary pedigree of the poet. I wrote the poems assigned to me in creative writing class, though not exactly on deadline, and even took a semester-length course in poetry-writing.
But I never took an interest in actually reading all those poets I had studied until I unexpectedly wrote a poem no one had assigned me to write, and discovered it was possible to write lines and stanzas about something I really cared about: poetry that actually meant something, at least to me. I had finished college by that point and was enjoying the only graduation present I really wanted, a cross-country hitchhiking trip without destinations or deadlines. The poem that took me by surprise was about hitchhiking – my choice of graduate schools, my first love, my first career.
From that point on, I was a poet. The poems I wrote were lousy, of course. But if one persists in writing poems, one is indisputably a poet. And the more I wrote, the more curious I grew about what other poets might be doing with the skills and tools I was gradually developing. I still have the battered copies of Whitman, Pound, Yeats, Gary Snyder and Galway Kinnell that rode around the country with me in my backpack.
The only poem I wrote during those years that still speaks to me is one I wrote on a canoe trip after an up-close encounter with a loon. In the summer after ninth grade I had signed up for a church-sponsored summer camp program and discovered the Boundary Waters – an unspoiled wilderness of glacier-carved lakes on the Minnesota-Ontario border. I eagerly signed up again every summer all the way through high school as a camper, then again throughout college as a counselor, and even as co-director of a couple of trips after that.
That experience awoke something in me which slowly, summer by summer, became my spiritual core. Which was ironic, because during those same years I was drifting away from the liberal Protestant Christianity I had grown up with. Looking back now, I recognize that what I experienced up in the North Woods, under the auspices of the United Methodist church, was not a religious conversion but a spiritual awakening.
“Creation,” I saw with sudden clarity, was not something given to humans for human purposes, but a living miracle with its own agenda, infused with a divine intelligence that could not be described in scriptures or doctrines or creeds. In Sunday School I had learned about a God who kicked people out of a Garden to wander in the wilderness – then later led their descendants out of the wilderness into a Promised Land. But my own Promised Land was uncorruptibly wild; my Garden was preserved in its original condition, innocent of Original Sin.
Throughout my twelve-year post-college odyssey around the country, I continued to write poems about the things I really cared about. I wrote more poems about hitchhiking, and years later published a book of them. I discovered the Rainbow Gathering, an annual festival dedicated to world peace and neo-tribal community. When I moved to Georgia, far from the Boundary Waters, this became my annual pilgrimage to the woods. I wrote poems about the Gatherings, and eventually published a book of those as well. I showed up at protest rallies and wrote poems about various activist causes and crises; a collection of these is now in search of a publisher. But as I matured, my relationship to nature deepened. The time I spent in the woods became increasingly precious, and nature became a constant theme in the poetry I was writing.
Eventually I noticed that the same theme cropped up repeatedly in the poetry I was reading as well. The literary traditions of every culture and period, I realized, had produced poets who wrote about nature. Nature appeared as metaphor, as image, as myth, as a source of wisdom and inspiration, as direct experience or vivid dream. Poets regarded the natural world with awe and gratitude, mourned and raged against its desecration at human hands, used it as a springboard for metaphysical speculation or surrealistic free association. I had no idea if this phenomenon had ever been studied by graduate students in English literature. But it seemed to me a significant discovery, something I began to pay attention to. I decided to call it “Earth Poetry.”
When my exploration of Earth Poetry began to feel like an invisible path stretching out before me into the mist, I turned around to look back, and found it was a path that reached backward as well, not to the beginning of time, but to the beginning of the timeless.
= + =
Although poetry from its very beginnings played a vital role in the communal life of the tribe, the power song originated as a communication from the nature spirits to an individual person, the shaman. The poem therefore represented a message to the human community from the natural world, channeled through a particular chosen individual, and was respected and valued as such by the tribe.
The poet and Buddhist practitioner Gary Snyder, whose undergraduate degree was in anthropology, sums up the shamanic legacy of poetry this way: “The philosopher, poet, and yogin all three have standing not too far behind them the shaman; with his or her pelt and antlers, or various other guises; songs going back to the Pleistocene and before. The shaman speaks for wild animals, the spirits of plants, the spirits of mountains, of watersheds. He or she sings for them. They sing through him. This capacity has often been achieved via special disciplines.” (The Old Ways, “The Yogin & the Philosopher,” p.12)
I get a taste of how this feels at the Rainbow Gathering. The poems about past Gatherings that I share around the campfire, though otherwise only shadowy ghosts of a traditional power song, echo the tribal function of the shaman in two key respects. They celebrate the communal bonding that makes the Gathering work on a human level, but they also honor the natural setting that silently encourages a deeply buried tribal consciousness to emerge. For this I feel respected and valued, like others who serve the more pragmatic needs of the tribe. Performing my poetry in any room where people have gathered specifically to listen, I feel a certain ego-gratification. But in the forest, in the flicker of firelight, it’s not only the human listeners who give me that special tingle, but the breeze, the starlight, the surrounding trees, the fire itself.
Over the millennia, as humankind spread and proliferated and diversified, individual poets continued to perform the sacred function of the shaman in human society. But human society was changing, developing in drastically different ways in different regions of the globe. Some cultures retained their indigenous beliefs, and rely on shamans for healing to this day. In others, little by little an attitude of dominance and exploitation began to replace the ancient sense of nature as one extended family.
Some 12,000 years ago, the Paleolithic began to give way to the agricultural Neolithic. As herding and farming peoples domesticated the animals and plants their ancestors had hunted and gathered, religious practice gradually shifted to the worship of supernatural entities, and hierarchical orders of priests took over the shaman’s task of contact with the sacred. Each culture had its gods and goddesses, but the divinity of the Earth itself was not forgotten. Throughout the ancient world, under many names, a great Mother Goddess personified the mysterious oneness of seedtime and harvest; of giving birth and dying; of the maiden, mother and wise old crone phases of life. Poets sang her praises in cycles of ritual through the moons and seasons.
Neolithic humans increasingly saw themselves as separate from and superior to the natural world. But at the deep level of dreams and visions, the human psyche’s relationship with nature remained intact. As human concepts of the sacred changed, the nature spirits adopted new disguises and continued to whisper in the ears of poets. The magical spell, the meditation mantra, the Tao Te Ching, The Iliad and The Odyssey, the Hebrew Psalms, the bhakti chants of India, the Arabic ghazal, the Zen koan, the Methodist hymnal, and all the schools and movements of poetry through the ages are descendants of the power songs brought back from the spirit world by ancient tribal shamans.
When the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, China, Egypt, and Mesoamerica further consolidated human control over nature, beginning around 6,000 years ago, the shape of the sacred in human culture followed suit. The gods and goddesses of the various pagan pantheons still embodied the forces and elements of nature, but in a more anthropocentric form. The human heroes of past ages were deified; the rulers of empires proactively declared themselves divine as well. Meanwhile, the revolutionary new technology of the written word was expanding beyond its original function of keeping track of accounts. Myths and epics that had been told and retold around countless campfires were finally written down by poets like Homer and Hesiod in Greece and the Hebrew scribes of Israel.
Still later, as more and more of the world’s peoples were overpowered and absorbed into warlike empires, including the monotheistic theocracies of Europe and the Middle East – a process historians call “civilization” – the manyfold whispers of nature merged into one unified voice. Whether humans called it the Tao, Yahweh, Buddha, Allah, the Beloved, the Christ, the message was oneness, the eternal essence of the sacred. Sometimes a whisper was not enough: the message came in a clap of thunder, a blinding light, a burning bush, a visionary experience that human prophets and mystics could not ignore.
Unfortunately, transcribing and interpreting the message was left to the priests, scribes, and bureaucrats – the literate class, who served the rulers. The “oneness” these officials exalted as supreme gradually began to exclude nature and its “heathen” deities, along with animals, women, sexuality, the physical body itself, entire races deemed less than human. The illiterate faithful who had once revered the sacredness of nature now transferred their veneration to the official “sacred texts.”
But in every age and language, the nature spirits kept whispering in the ears of poets. In imperial China, where indigenous spirituality was embedded in Taoist philosophy, poetry was the most popular literary genre by far. Poets like Li Po, Tu Fu, Wang Wei, and Han Shan were quoted and revered. Most poets held positions in the vast bureaucracy of the Emperors, and wrote their poetry during getaways to mountain retreats. Nature was a constant theme, both as a consolation for the sorrows of life and as a reminder of the transience of joy.
In Japan, influenced by the indigenous Shinto religion, the Zen Buddhists found in poetry an apt way to express the insights of “interpenetration” – the oneness of all things – and impermanence, the endless cycles of change. Poets like Basho, Issa, and Buson became famous for their haiku, capturing in 17 evocative syllables the age-old resonance between human lives and the changing seasons. In the 16th century, writing haiku became a national obsession among the common people of Japan, and it remains popular today.
In medieval Europe, under the Christian doctrine of “dominion” over nature, the worship of the Great Goddess was forced underground – only to surface in a new disguise, the mythology of the poet’s Muse. She was the goddess of the romantic ideal, of archetypal Woman. But she was also Mother Earth, ancient and eternal, and she spoke through the troubadours of French Provence, among others. Mystics like Hildegard of Bingen in Germany and Jalal al-Din Rumi in Turkey expressed their visions of oneness in poetic metaphor to avoid being branded as heretics by their respective religious authorities.
With the coming of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, religion began to lose its dominance as wealthy capitalists developed ever more efficient methods of exploiting nature. Under the philosophical influence of the Age of Enlightenment, poetry had become an intellectual exercise with little connection to nature. Beginning with William Blake in the late 1700s, a younger generation of poets known today as the Romantics rebelled against the view of nature as nothing more than raw material for civilization’s ideal of “progress.” In England the Romantics included John Keats, William Wordsworth, and Lord Byron; in Europe, Gerard de Nerval, Friedrich Holderlin, and Johann Wilhelm von Goethe. In the United States, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman are considered a sort of independent branch of the movement.
In the 20th century, when mainstream poetry left tradition behind and launched into an era of “modernist” exploration, many individual poets still carried on the sacred function of representing wild nature in the cultural conversation. In the U.S. they included Robinson Jeffers, Theodore Roethke, Kenneth Rexroth, Denise Levertov, James Wright, Galway Kinnell, W.S. Merwin, Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, and Mary Oliver, to name only a few. It was from that generation of poets – my tribal elders – that I learned my craft, and inherited the legacy of the shamans.
No self-respecting poet can be squeezed into such a narrow designation as “Earth poet,” but virtually every book of poetry I have ever dipped into or devoured is suffused with nature imagery and metaphor to some extent, from the ancient Greeks to the postmodern avant-garde. This is no surprise. Our indigenous past lives on in our DNA; it’s only natural that people who are in touch with their inner selves at the deepest level will receive occasional communications from the nature spirits, whether they consciously experience it that way or not.
Unfortunately, humankind has ignored the message, misinterpreted the prophets, deified the soulless dollar, and relegated poetry to the realm of entertainment. The nature spirits have given up whispering; they are roaring now, keening, moaning, raging, clamoring for our attention. Plastic-choked oceans, clearcut forests, depleted topsoil and aquifers, mass extinction, and climate chaos cry out to be heard. But those in power seem to hear nothing but the cash registers ringing in their ears. Nature herself will survive, naturally. But suddenly the destiny of humankind is up for grabs.
= + =
The mathematical odds of a world like ours coming to be through sheer chance are so astronomical that even an astronomer might use the word “miraculous” – metaphorically, of course. But whether you believe the Earth evolved over five billion years by a process of mutation and adaptation, or was created in six days by a benevolent deity, you will probably agree that a liveable planet is rare enough that it should be kept liveable at all costs. Especially if it happens to be the planet that makes our own lives liveable.
The word sacred is normally used in a religious context. But I propose a broader meaning. Anything which we utterly depend on to continue living and breathing – not to mention the theoretically endless generations to come – can and should be regarded as sacred, regardless of world-view and belief-system. Tampering with the life support systems of Planet Earth ought to be taboo, and in many religious traditions it is.
More and more people are coming to the same conclusion, among them the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis I, and a wave of evangelical Christians who consider themselves stewards of God’s Creation. Indigenous people, schoolchildren, activists of every description are sounding the alarm. Even the scientific community is beginning to peel off its spotless white coat of neutral objectivity to advocate for wilderness conservation, ecosystem restoration, renewable energy, nuclear disarmament, a proactive stance toward climate change.
The evolutionary future of our species, like any other, requires that we put the highest value on maximizing the next generation’s chances of survival. Regarding our own comfort and convenience as more precious than the future of our children is pure insanity. In biological terms, it is evolutionary suicide. Awakening the human community to this obvious truth is the key to surviving the multiple interlocking environmental emergencies we face today.
Unfortunately, poets cannot rescue humankind from organized, efficient, well-funded human folly all by ourselves. But we do have a role to play. Like the shaman’s, it is a role of healing, of connection, of bringing the voice of nature into the cultural conversation. By re-awakening the original function of poetry in human society, we can help to catalyze the mass awakening that is so badly needed. Poets are uniquely equipped to supply the missing link between humans and the biosphere that supports us: the perspective of the sacred.
But to speak of the sacred in today’s polarized society is likely to offend the religious and alienate the secular, further dividing us instead of restoring the lost unity of the human tribe. Luckily, the word itself is merely shorthand for a miraculous oneness which is still visible wherever we turn. Whether the scenery is wild or pastoral, suburban or urban, nature is omnipresent and alive as ever.
As alternatives to statistics and data, the Earth poet offers imagery and inspiration. Imagery of nature’s beauty, from the geometry of a seashell to the grandeur of a canyon; inspiration arising in response from that deep level where human nature is still wild, still capable of perceiving what is sacred. Earth Poetry sees the miracle of Creation not as mere metaphor, nor as a literal act of God, but as a third kind of miracle: a world where spirit and matter mingle and interplay, reveal themselves in the light of one another – and occasionally fuse together in a sudden vision of oneness.
But here in the 21st century, can a miracle as vast as the starry universe be seen with the naked eye? With eyes trained to see the world through a microscope? With eyes hooked on the split-second editing and special effects of a digital screen? A poem can offer a poet’s perspective, but can it persuade people to see? Can it convey to modern humans a sense of the sacred, not in the religious sense, but in the original sense of awe and wonder that was the seed of every religion?
This, ladies and gentlemen, is where the poet as entertainer takes the stage. Our shamanic heritage has not only a religious function but a magical one. Through the link to the nonhuman realm that all humans share – the imagination – Earth poets can cast a potent spell in luminous, musical language, countering the spell cast by a thousand channels of entertainment, the dark enchantment of irrelevance. We can invite those who read or listen into the sacred dimension of life on Earth without so much as whispering the word. Or at least we can try.
Standing just outside the human realm and looking in, singing our power songs, we can entice our readers or listeners to step out of the human drama and re-connect with the larger drama that goes on around us regardless of human plans and priorities. Migrating geese and salmon and Monarch butterflies. The slow march of forest succession toward climax. The stubborn survival of keystone species like wolves and grizzlies. Sightings of deer and coyotes in urban neighborhoods. The unstoppable trickles and torrents of water, stream erosion and deposition, evaporation and rainfall. And the heroism of human communities restoring waterways and replanting forests is a form of natural beauty, too.
Earth poetry is not “nature poetry,” poetry about nature, but poetry about our relationship with nature as conscious participants in a living world, rather than tourists, spectators, or scientists. Venturing beyond the fortified borders of the human ego, Earth poets are moved not only to wonder and gratitude for nature’s gifts, but to grief and rage for every lost species, coral reef, old-growth forest. My feelings do not speak for others, but offer them the opportunity to turn within and feel what they themselves may have forgotten how to feel.
Practitioners of a branch of psychotherapy called ecopsychology trace today’s pandemic of ailments like depression, anxiety, addiction, and random violence to a society-wide suppression of feelings of love and loss for the world we are collectively ravaging in the name of progress. Like the shamans, these therapists have taken on the task of healing a spiritual imbalance between the human and natural worlds, restoring a lost connection that has left humans themselves feeling lost. Some ecopsychologists have even brought shamanic techniques into their practices.
Poets too have inherited the shamanic legacy of healing the rift between the worlds. But where therapy focuses primarily on the individual, poetry speaks to society as a whole. The ancient shamans communicated with spirits not just to heal a sick individual, but on behalf of the entire tribe. Earth poets, too, bring back from the spirit world – from our own deeply personal relationships with nature – a gift for the human tribe. Our gift, too, takes the form of song: the rhythm of breath and heartbeat, the truth of heartfelt emotion, the vision of re-connection with our extended family and our deepest selves.
Society is made up of individuals, of course, and the fundamental connection of any art form is person to person, heart to heart. In the right time and place, the right poem can awaken in a listening heart the possibility, the seed – no matter how small – of a personal relationship with nature. But that seed can only sprout and grow in the context of community, our modern-day approximation of the tribal society in which humankind originally took root.
The isolation of the individual is a modern phenomenon, the inevitable outcome of our long exile from nature. Therapy can’t heal people trapped in a sick society; that requires the medicine of community. Just as Paleolithic art did in the context of ritual, Earth poetry can bring people together to experience the sacred – the oneness of body, mind, heart, spirit, community, cosmos. It’s this experience of oneness at every level that heals.
= + =
To take this sacred charge seriously, Earth poets need to ask ourselves why poetry’s market-share in the entertainment industry is so small. What is it that restricts the appeal of “mainstream” poetry to an elite, educated audience? Why is the poetry published in the New Yorker and so many literary journals intentionally cryptic, obscure, frivolous, disengaged with real issues and devoid of real emotion? I wonder if it’s because poetry has lost its “voice” – not literally, but in the literary sense of the term; not the personal voice of the poet, but the poetic persona that speaks through the poem.
Until about a century ago, reading and reciting poetry was a popular pastime among ordinary folks. With a few exceptions, such as Wordsworth and Whitman, most poetry of that era used rocking-horse rhythms and merry-go-round rhyme schemes that made it easy to memorize, and it spoke in its own specialized language: the poetic “voice.” What people expected from a good poem was archaic vocabulary, formal diction, flowery phrases, alliteration and assonance, stilted syntax, melodramatic themes, ostentatious symbolism, allusions to classical literature and mythology. These flourishes were intended to set the poet’s voice apart from the prosaic day-to-day, give it a loftier, more authoritative seat from which to observe and expound. But to the modern ear, this antiquated style sounds pompous and artificial.
After World War I, a new epoch abruptly arrived. Tradition everywhere came crashing down, blown asunder by the horrors of technological advances in the conduct of war. Under the influence of modernists like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens, poets began to experiment. Rhyme and meter went out of fashion – along with the custom of saying something coherent in a poem. Painting and sculpture, music, drama and dance underwent a similar mutation, reflecting the shattered conventions of meaning. Literature increasingly became an academic specialty; literary criticism elevated poetry above the pastime for common folk it had always been; poets responded with poems that were more and more intellectual, abstract, and surreal. Poetry was growing up, and like a hormone-flooded adolescent, its “voice” was changing.
The new voice spoke with the authority of an exhilarating new age of individual freedom. It was the voice of dazzling originality, unleashed imagination, sheer reckless possibility. In the place of poetic convention, the modernist poets celebrated invention. What set the new poetic voice apart from the prosaic day-to-day of the new century was its daring, its edge: language and imagery and a shape on the page that defied rational sense, painting in abstract colors a realistic portrait of an irrational world. Readers found no trace of old-fashioned message or meaning in poems that cynically depicted – while helping to create – a newly meaningless universe. But people adrift in a meaningless world yearn for meaning . . . and poetry began to lose the mass audience it had long enjoyed.
Like many of my peers, I went through various phases of imitation as I discovered one by one the poets who pioneered the schools, styles, and movements of 20th-century poetry. I too wrote poems in secret code – poetry that cloaked its meaning, if it meant anything, in whimsical wordplay, elaborate metaphor, hallucinogenic imagery, random leaps between disconnected thoughts. These experiments in poetic possibility were gloriously legitimate in their day, when the human imagination was expanding, exploring, freeing itself from the husk of tradition in order to fly free.
But now we have reached a plateau where we can look back over the centuries, over the clutter of obsolete technologies and crumbling monuments, and assess what civilization has given us – including this joyous freedom to experiment – and what it has cost. What civilization has given us, we are beginning to see, has very nearly cost us our children’s future. It is time now to speak plainly of what is real and what is not. It is time to write about what we truly care about, in language that conveys clear meaning. The days of veiled abstraction and flights of surreal fancy are over, like the days of meter and rhyme before them; poetic conceits and arbitrary techniques will now only get in the way.
In the literary world of the 21st century, declaring that poetry must mean something is tantamount to heresy. The critics and professors will have nothing to decipher! But maybe the hip-hop artists and the singer-songwriters know something poets don’t. Maybe the size of their market-share has to do not just with synthesized beats and guitar solos, but with an unabashed willingness to say something, and to say it in plain language, no matter how trivial or trite. Maybe poetry needs a new voice – something to set it apart from the prosaic day-to-day of a technologically-driven dystopia which is rapidly laying waste to its resource base, contaminating its water supply, and sending a once-stable climate spinning out of control.
Between the extremes of classical formalism and a formless freedom de-coupled from meaning lies the path of plain language – a voice that is truthful, imaginative, original, grounded in honest emotion and a deep connection to the natural world. Like the voice of a preacher, it draws from a well of moral authority. But rather than the chapter and verse of scripture, Earth Poetry’s authority springs from the childish innocence of our love for the land and its creatures.
Of course, if the poet tries to preach, if the poetic voice is too earnest and humorless, its readers and listeners will turn back to the voices of diversion, distraction, and denial. The power song of the shaman sings not of morality, of good and evil, but of balance; of the oneness underlying all opposition and conflict. Poetry must entertain, but it can no longer afford to distract. It must bring to our attention, in sharp focus, our responsibility as adults to the innocent young of every species.
= + =
When the Digital Age arrived, I finally got around to searching the internet for “Earth Poetry.” I found lists of inspirational poems for Earth Day by poets past and present; places to post a favorite poem; a do-it-yourself site where visitors can contribute to a “community poem”; illustrated posters that read like oversized greeting cards; a host of earnest love-letters to Mother Earth that reminded me of my own awkward beginnings as a poet. I even found an image of an old brochure I had designed to publicize my workshops. Earth Poetry is clearly alive and thriving among the population at large, plain-spoken enough, but mostly lacking the depth and energy of a shamanic power song.
A search for “eco-poetry,” on the other hand, took me to the other end of the spectrum: an erudite 2016 essay by John Shoptaw, a poet and professor at the University of California, published on the Poetry Foundation website. His definition is simple enough: to qualify, an “ecopoem” must be both environmental and environmentalist.
“By environmental,” he writes, “I mean first that an ecopoem needs to be about the nonhuman natural world – wholly or partly, in some way or other, but really and not just figuratively.” To me, in contrast, the figurative references to nature that appear so often in poetry are natural outcroppings of human nature, the vestige of wild ancestry that lurks in our DNA and provides an unconscious landscape for the wanderings of the creative imagination. Metaphors drawn from nature demonstrate that human nature is deeply rooted in land and sea and sky, and the subterranean channel between them is open both ways. Rather than drawing a boundary between the human and nonhuman worlds, Earth Poetry is about drawing them together again.
But like me, Shoptaw makes a separate category of “nature poetry.” Quoting the “ecological poetics” of poet and essayist Forrest Gander, he distinguishes nature poetry from “poetry that investigates – both thematically and formally – the relationship between nature and culture, language and perception.” I applaud the emphasis on “relationship,” but the relationship I reach for in my poems is not so much thematic and formal as personal and emotional, heartfelt, sensual, visceral.
Shoptaw himself sees the difference in terms of the poem’s relationship to the reader, rather than to nature: “Ecopoetry is nature poetry that has designs on us, that imagines changing the ways we think, feel about, and live and act in the world.” This is the environmentalist aspect of ecopoetry; it portrays an environment that is, “implicitly or explicitly, impacted by humans,” but goes beyond an aesthetic portrayal to spur readers and listeners to concern, if not action. A poem about nature’s impact on humans, by contrast, whether aesthetic, psychological, or spiritual, is just a nature poem. In fact, writing about nature without mentioning the hovering threat of its extinction verges on complacency, even “immorality.”
Dwelling too heavily on the human menace, however, runs the opposite risk of “moralizing,” Shoptaw says. Poetry cannot become didactic, reduced to a blunt object for teaching one more “tiresome lesson” about guilt and duty. This is a delicate line to draw, since the effect of any given poem is as varied as its readers. I too welcome an activist stance in an Earth poem, but that is only one of the myriad ways nature speaks through poetry. Each poem will naturally take a different form, shaped by the poet’s emotional response to the particular “environment” that inspired it. Defining an ecopoem not only as environmental but as environmentalist further narrows its scope.
For me, the heart of Shoptaw’s piece is his summary of ecopoet Jorie Graham’s thoughts on didacticism in an interview with Earthlines magazine. From the range of potential readers Graham singles out the ones who “feel anything remotely ‘political’ to be polemical and thus didactic. They feel they ‘know this information already, so why do they need it in a poem.’ That,” Graham emphasizes, “is precisely the point. They ‘know’ it. They are not ‘feeling it.’ That is what activists in the environmental movement are asking of us: help it be felt, help it be imagined.” Bravo! Feeling and imagination are precisely what we need to break through the paralysis of so much demoralizing information.
I also admired Shoptaw’s defense of the poetic device of “anthropomorphization” – depicting an animal, for instance, as a character with human-like motives who thinks and acts like us. This imaginative communion between species is a revival of an ancient magical practice, routine for any Paleolithic shaman dancing in a wolf skin or elk antlers. The shamans, of course, would have been intimately familiar with the species whose part they played. But imagination has its roots in magic, and no one can say for sure that a poet’s animal allies are not whispering through the poem. Again, the goal is not literary correctness, but to reach the reader somewhere deep enough to awaken the potential for change.
Though I enjoyed soaking up Shoptaw’s professional expertise on “ecopoetics,” I’m very much an outsider in his world. If I were to keep on sniffing my way through the digital universe, as I certainly should, I’m sure I would unearth many more choice encounters like this, explore many unsuspected avenues, meet many kindred spirits, deepen my own knowledge, and perhaps end up feeling my notion of “Earth Poetry” is altogether redundant.
But what troubled me as I read, with one exception, were the examples Shoptaw chose to illustrate his knowledgeable and thought-provoking points – the snippets of contemporary poetry he held up as exemplary ecopoems. I had to scratch my head, wondering: who are these poets talking to? Who exactly are they writing for? My best guess is: each other. They all come out of the closed-door culture of the writing workshop, I imagine, where budding writers critique each other, strive to impress each other, spur each other on to new feats of derring-do, but never ask for feedback from the janitor pushing a broom out in the hall.
The whole mission of ecopoetry as a subgenre seems no different from the apparent aspiration of the genre as a whole: writing not to communicate, to be read, heard, and understood, but to top all the other poets in some elite competition for the title of “Most Opaque.” It’s the toothless and tottering century-old culture of innovation, desperate not to repeat itself, disdainful of the simple reality of feelings that all humans share, afraid to trust in the inherent originality of the unique individual who has something to say.
The one exception I mentioned is Robert Hass’s poem “Ezra Pound’s Proposition,” a powerful but flawed depiction of the causes and effects of a dam-building project in Thailand. It literally sent electric shivers up my spine – once I made it past the opening lines, which are apparently an actual account of the genesis of the poem in Hass’s mind. When propositioned by a teenage prostitute in Bangkok, evidently his very first thought was of a line from Pound’s Cantos about economics and fertility. Yes, I did get the pun, though without an M.F.A. in English it took me a minute. But what is the point of taking me there before commencing the actual business of the poem? To drive away readers unqualified to read further? Or just to demonstrate the poet’s intellectual prowess? It’s a perfect example of the poet getting in the way of the poem.
After all of Shoptaw’s exclusionary clauses, however, his bottom line is not about defending academic turf but about defending the Earth. “An ecopoem may be innovative or it may be what I call ‘renovative’ (where any poetic feature, past or present, is available for renewal), or it may even be resolutely traditionalist – and it may appear anywhere. We need all kinds of poems to find and stir up all sorts of poetry readers.” This certainly includes the sort of readers whose taste is more sophisticated than mine. I can only be grateful that the ecopoets are out there working the field next to mine, and thankful for occasional gaps in the fenceline.
In the bars and coffeehouses, meanwhile, the slam poets and the amateur rappers and the neo-beatniks are lining up for their chance at the microphone. The many open mikes I have attended over the years have unfailingly showcased the depth and range of poetry that wells up continuously and unstoppably from the aquifers of the wild imagination, with or without the benefit of professors and workshops. Perhaps because most of us these days are city folks, these otherwise diverse poets are almost exclusively concerned with the human world. But their overriding emphasis is to communicate, bravely sharing their private worlds in the public domain, going deep within to bring back a gift from the unconscious for the human tribe. This is the real cutting edge of the ancient legacy of the shamans.
= + =
Personally, I have never had a visionary experience, even during the acid trips of yore. I rarely even remember my dreams. I don’t practice meditation or ecstatic chanting. I never learned to identify trees, birds, edible plants, stars or constellations. I live in an urban neighborhood, not off-grid in the deep woods. At best, I escape the city to pitch my tent in the forest three or four times a year. I have never attempted a “vision quest.” I can claim no shamanic training or initiation, and I can’t swear that nature spirits are actually whispering in my ear.
What I do know is that suspiciously often, while I’m camping out in the woods or sitting in my somewhat unkempt back yard, a phrase will pop into my head, and I will faithfully jot it down. It can happen on a city sidewalk too, just as it used to on the highway shoulder. These are the seeds of my poems. They surface mysteriously from my spiritual core, my sense of belonging here on Earth, nurtured by nature’s abundant love; within the hard shell of a few words they encase a kernel of the love I feel in return.
Some of these spontaneous phrases will sprout and grow until they fill a page or more. Others turn out to be random pieces of a poem slowly taking shape in my subconscious. Still others are complete exactly as I jotted them down. Like many a poet and artist before me, I am reluctant to take credit for these gifts from the wild imagination. On the other hand, I have to be grateful. Even after thirty years of domesticated life, of marriage and work and paying off a mortgage, I still feel a tiny bit wild myself: the youthful hitchhiker somehow captured and caged, dazed and bewildered, wondering how it happened and where the years have gone. Earth Poetry frees that wild part of me to prowl the night and sing to the moon.
Despite my lack of academic or literary credentials, my poems have appeared in a number of mostly non-literary magazines. I have published or self-published three books of poetry and numerous chapbooks. I have performed for a variety of audiences in my decidedly non-theatrical voice. And for over a decade I have hosted a quarterly “Earth Poetry” workshop, bringing together a small group of poets each season to explore the urban greenspaces and nature preserves of metropolitan Atlanta.
Labeling myself an “Earth poet” is not only self-limiting but a tad grandiose, I realize. Sometimes to my own ear my work sounds too didactic, too polished, too pointed, too nakedly obvious. I know I should be sly and indirect, allude rather than allege, let my readers make the leap themselves instead of leading them there. But the time to raise awareness and inspire action is short, and the stakes are high. I have given up trying to domesticate my own nature; I accept myself as I am, as I naturally think and feel and write, and I write down whatever comes out. I am nature, like you, and nature knows what it’s doing.
Robert Graves, a poet of the old school, survived combat in World War I but stubbornly carried on the tradition of meter and rhyme. His poetic vision is even more old-school: “The function of poetry is religious invocation of the Muse; its use is the experience of mixed exaltation and horror that her presence excites. But ‘nowadays’? Function and use remain the same; only the application has changed. This was once a warning to man that he must keep in harmony with the family of living creatures among which he was born, by obedience to the wishes of the lady of the house; it is now a reminder that he has disregarded the warning, turned the house upside down by capricious experiments in philosophy, science and industry, and brought ruin on himself and his family.” (The White Goddess, p.14)
Ruin might indeed turn out to be the end of the story – but the ending has yet to be written. Every one of us has something to say about that, a vital contribution no one else can make. Too many are numbed by denial, cauterized by grief, paved over by despair, desperately filling with addiction and consumption the bottomless hole where a warm, reciprocal feeling of love and connection to nature belongs. But if enough of us wake up in time to nature’s warning, together we just might achieve the critical mass that is needed for large-scale transformation.
At this point, that looks unlikely; statistical probability is not on our side. Earth Poetry is not going to miraculously go viral and enlighten the masses. But political activism alone will not turn the tide, either. What gives me hope is the multitude of activists out there who are committed enough to keep going in the face of statistical probabilities. Activists like these are motivated deeply from within; the nature spirits are whispering to them, too. If anything can save us, it will be a commitment that springs from that deep place – a rising awareness of what is real, and what is not. A contagious solidarity with life in all its myriad forms. A dawning vision of the sacred. “Water is Life,” after all, is not just a slogan of the Water Protectors but a seed-kernel of sacred poetry.
Earth Poetry is one of many paths that humans have explored in the agelong search for our original state of oneness with nature: the deep human longing for reunion with the cosmos. In our time, this is not just a spiritual quest; it is an urgent necessity. Down in the wild depths of the psyche, where dreams and imagination and long-suppressed feelings ache to be released, the living planet that birthed us waits to welcome us home – this sunlit, spinning miracle that gives us life and breath and sustenance, whether we look down and notice it or not.
As the labor organizer and peace activist A.J. Muste once said: “It is necessary; therefore it is possible.”