Northwest Review, Volume 44, Number 2 / 2006
In this so-called Age of Information, it is becoming increasingly common for one's experience of poetry to be framed and mediated by digital devices and their screens, as the plethora of websites and online "journals" now devoted to poetry will attest. The translation of poetry into cyberspace can be seen as the realization of the oldest of dreams: triumph over the ravages of time and the exigencies of place and personality. As it is absorbed into the digital noosphere, poetry (and perhaps poets) may finally attain the kind of immortality Keats dreamed about, however fretfully.
In this essay I would like to praise Paper, or rather, the role Paper can play in contesting the mutation of poetry into mere data and in preserving the vital bond between Word and World. Paper, as the field of poetic potentiality, the material ground to the figures of poetic parole, reminds us of the organic basis of all language, ultimately of poetry's origin in what Brian Bartlett has aptly termed the "afterlife of trees."
In his commentary on the Prajñaparamita Heart Sutra, the Vietnamese Zen master, poet, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh addresses the social and ultimately natural conditions that give rise to written language. He writes:
If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; without trees, we cannot make paper. [...] If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. [...] And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger's father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist. (Heart 3-4)
The kind of poetic perception called for here underwrites an understanding of what Thich Nhat Hanh terms "interbeing," the notion that identity is intrinsically conditioned and relational. As many critics have noted, such an understanding is entirely consistent with a contemporary ecological attitude that emphasizes the interanimating and interdependent nature of ecosystems and their participants.
Thich Nhat Hanh's perspective also serves to remind us of the fundamental connection between language and the natural world, arguably the starting point for any ecocritical endeavor. In this sense, Paper stands in a metonymic relationship to the environmental preconditions of discourse in both its oral and written forms. Paper stands for trees, earth, water, the body, life: the ten-thousand things of our living world.
The effort to ground the airy flights of language in the material world is consistent with a great deal of recent scholarship and literary effort proceeding on many fronts. We can look, for example, to the individual and collaborative work of Mark Johnson and George Lakoff including, especially, Metaphors We Live By (1980), The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason (1987), and Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (1999). David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous (1996) is another relatively recent attempt to flesh out an objectivist theory of language and literature.
These contemporary arguments inevitably turn on the terms of a very old debate centered on the tension between oral and written discourse. In the European tradition it is rooted in theories of language already well-established by the time Plato addresses them in several of his dialogues. We remember, for example, that written language comes in for an especially tough time in the Phaedrus; Plato believed that written language inhibits memory and severs discourse from its originary condition as the medium of exchange between specific souls embedded in a specific (rhetorical and spatio-temporal) situation. Taken out of its fundamental context, Plato argued, writing yields only "the semblance" of wisdom, not the truth (Phaedrus 275A).
More recently, Jacques Derrida famously subverted Plato's privileging of oral discourse by inverting the speech/writing dichotomy. Derrida's gambit (in his original "Plato's Pharmacy" essay published in 1968 in Tel Quel and reprinted in 1972 as La Dissemination) was meant to underscore the polysemous nature of discourse against the epistemic ambitions of traditional philosophy.
In this Encomium to Paper, I have in mind a similar inversion, though one that celebrates the material conditions that are the prerequisites for the play of textual signification Derrida rightly extols. The inversion offered here underscores the need to recognize the contingency of wisdom, however construed, on a sustaining environment. To celebrate Paper is, on this account, to celebrate, to insist upon, a world of trees as the essential prerequisite to poetic expression and any hope of mutual understanding.
A celebration of Paper moves us beyond the epistemological quarrel between the likes of Plato and Derrida to the lurking ethical concerns that motivate the quarrel in the first place. For Derrida's critique of logocentrism is not merely an attempt at "epistemological correctness": rather, Derrida almost always has his eye on the social, political, ultimately ethical implications of epistemology. In the case of Plato, used here as shorthand for the logocentric fetish, what matters is the complicity of the Word, when reified by power, in the creation of potentially rigid hierarchies that paradoxically allow for, and ultimately militate against, the free play of Being and Becoming.
Plato's own play for the epistemological high ground is also not without its salutary, of abstracted, ethical ambition. Especially in the Phaedrus, we see Plato moving Socrates and the young Phaedrus through the thickets of linguistic theory in an attempt to preserve what might be characterized as vital human connection, perhaps even love. For Plato, the ultimate goal was the meeting of minds if not souls; from his perspective, written language presents very real difficulties in facilitating this goal. Oral discourse, especially the disciplined discourse of philosophical dialectic, is marginally better in pointing minds and souls in the right direction.
Any sympathy toward Plato's notion of idealistic intimacy is tempered, of course, by the postmodern recognition of logocentric excess; For contemporary liberal humanists, working to preserve free play within the human sphere, whatever the epistemological stakes, seems a worthy ethical goal. And for ecologically-minded liberal posthumanists, working to preserve free play in the more-than-human context (one definition of conservation) remains a compelling ethical charge.
Celebrating Paper is thus an ethical enterprise. By celebrating Paper we celebrate the materiality of textuality. Celebrating Paper shifts our attention from the human Word to the more-than-human World that is always already given, present in the forms and flow of language. Celebrating Paper thus reinforces an ecocentric ethic that seeks to decenter human interests in the name of environmental balance and integrity.
Our praise for Paper also returns us, perhaps reluctantly, to the mawkish embrace of Joyce Kilmer's "Trees":
I think I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
(Trees and Other Poems 19)
Kilmer's sylvan piety may strike the contemporary reader as excessively sentimental, but it suggests, perhaps unintentionally, the kind of ethical awareness that a celebration of Paper comprehends. We note the unreserved privileging of real, live trees over the seemingly lifeless products of the poet's craft. In the logic of the poem, such privileging appears on first blush to arise from aesthetic judgment: trees are more "lovely" than mere poems. But this aesthetic discrimination seems to stem from a difference in origin: poems are created by foolish poets who rarely, if ever, acknowledge that the true power of Creation lies beyond the conceits of poetry and of poets. The poem asks, in so many words: what hope is there for the dead artifacts of sheerly human invention in a world green with trees?
The irony here, the not-so-subtle, terrible-if-unintended irony is that Kilmer's faith in trees is given expression 1) through the tender offices of this allegedly inferior poetic medium that is 2) presented (for most of its readers, at least until the advent of the Internet) on paper probably made from tree pulp.
What should we make of this poem and the irony that attaches to it? Without dismissing the poem as simply naive and perhaps hypocritical, we might offer it as a case study in the relationship between language and its more-than-human context. The poem's unironic, surface-level argument, such as it is, circumscribes an ethical attitude which, while more theocentric than ecocentric, nevertheless serves as a check on human hubris, whether in its artistic or nonartistic aspect. In addition, the fact that Kilmer makes the case for trees and against poetry in a poem suggests the truly ambivalent nature of poetry, both its ability to facilitate expression and understanding AND the inherent limitations of poetry as ostensibly inorganic artifice. Finally, the fact that some number of trees has been sacrificed over the years in order to present Kilmer's poem to readers demonstrates in the most literal sense the natural debt poetic language incurs.
Such a debt may also suggest certain obligations worth noting. To the extent that poetry has, at least until very recently, required the sacrifice of trees and other fiber-producing plants is not, on this account, incidental or irrelevant. Instead, such a sacrifice may invite acknowledgment and honoring. Alternatively, the failure to acknowledge and honor the interrelationship between poetry and paper, the Word and the World, represents yet another step on the long road to an existence completely divorced from our natural roots.
This kind of deracinated future strikes me as perilously close. I think of this when I encounter poetry on various websites and in online discussions. Some will dismiss such concern as merely nostalgic, the fretting of one clinging to the past and outmoded models of human existence. They might be right.
But when the first interstellar ship sets a course for Proxima Centauri, we may hope that, tucked into a corner of its data bank, are some poems and other literary artifacts of human life on this planet. I would be pleased if these artifacts included a poem like W.S. Merwin's "Place":
On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree
not for the fruit
the tree that bears the fruit
is not the one that was planted
I want the tree that stands
in the earth for the first time
with the sun already
and the water
touching its roots
in the earth full of the dead
and the clouds passing
one by one
over its leaves
(The Rain in the Trees)
We may also hope that someone manages to smuggle on board a poem like this carefully inscribed by a loving human hand on a sheet of fine paper. There is a melancholy comfort, I believe, in the thought that such a poem might provide our extraterrestrial descendents with a material link to this great green world and their all-too-human ancestors.
About the Author
David Gilcrest is the author of several studies of rhetoric and environmental writing, including Greening the Lyre: Environmental Poetics and Ethics (University of Nevada Press, 2002).
University of Oregon
Editor: John Witte
Fiction Editor: Janice MacRae
Poetry Editor: John Witte