What Sparks Poetry

Ecopoetry Now

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature that explores experiences and ideas that spark the writing of new poems.

In Ecopoetry Now, invited poets engage in an ecopoetic conversation across borders. In poems and poetics statements, their work describes important local differences, including bioregion and language, as well as a shared concern for the Earth. We hope to highlight poetry’s integral role in creating and sustaining a broadly ecological imagination that is most alive when biologically, culturally, and linguistically diverse.

Cecily Parks on “Girlhood”

The Ecology in Ekphrasis

Defined in Oxford as “the rhetorical description of a work of art,” ekphrasis understands that a poem about visual art can highlight a painting, sculpture, or film’s most dynamic qualities, inviting new curiosity, interpretation, and knowledge (however fleeting, or “flowing, and flown,” as Elizabeth Bishop writes in “At the Fishhouses”) into our experience of visual art. Invitational and additive, ekphrastic poetry moves through and beyond description to serenade, sting, or startle us. Otherwise, we’d just call it description.

Readers and writers of ecological poetry long ago abandoned the notion that representation alone equates to an ecological engagement with the natural world. This line of thinking draws ecopoetry and ekphrastic poetry into an agreement: description is valuable if it’s rhetorical. Rhetorical is another way of saying persuasive, or moving, but it is not another way of saying pedantic. Bishop needed to write 82 lines to earn her ending line in “At the Fishhouses,” a poem that I think of as an eco-ekphrastic, demonstrating how intimacy with the silvery, glittery, sequined shoreline can come about through acts that include careful attention or clumsy attempts to speak to seals, and how those acts feel uncomfortable, foreclosed, or fraught. Night falls over the course of the poem, and I imagine that the speaker will never return to that place that the darkness enshrouds. The poem ends on a note of goodnight and goodbye.

It’s easy to read poems that describe ecosystems—like “At the Fishhouses”—and conclude that they’re ecopoetic. What if they’re ekphrastic too? What would an eco-ekphrastic poetry do? According to The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ekphrasis can also respond to buildings, surroundings, and landscapes, a tradition that’s classified as the “depiction of a lovely spot” and includes the description of Calypso’s island, suffused with the “scent of citrus and of brittle pine” in Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. The description of Calpyso’s island paradise shows readers what Odysseus forsakes by leaving after staying there for seven years: he’s not only giving up a beautiful place to return home to rocky Ithaca, he’s also giving up on Calypso’s offer of everlasting sex and immortality. Later in The Odyssey, there’s a similarly paradisiac description of Alcinous’s kingdom, another place where Odysseus could choose to stay, marry the king’s daughter Nausicaa, and live happily ever after, but Odysseus leaves it, too. Saying goodbye to fantasy versions of the natural world (and the human lives therein that they promise on bad faith) is heroic in The Odyssey, and it might be heroic, by which I mean ethical, in ecopoetry too.

Back in its Greek roots, ek means out, and phrazein means tell. If we’re reading etymologically, Danielle Dutton argues, then ekphrasis “seems to encourage the possibility for ecstatic utterance, for speaking outside the self.” How far away is “speaking outside the self” from the self speaking outside? Not very. What if an eco-ekphrastic poetry could both evoke and puncture the artifice of our most beloved landscapes, to express what it feels like to confront their precarity and loss?


For further reading:

Elizabeth Bishop, “At the Fishhouses”
Danielle Dutton, A Picture Held Us Captive
Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson
Tracy K. Smith, “Hill Country”

Writing Prompt

Part 1: Think of an out-of-doors place that holds magic for you. Maybe you haven’t been there in a long time, or maybe you can’t return to it, because you’re not the same person you were when you last visited it, or it’s gone. This place could be a stretch of sidewalk, a backyard, a park, a porch, a shoreline, a bike path, a basketball court, a playing field, a stretch of empty highway, a skate park, a public pool, or someplace else. Now empty it of people. List, with as much specificity as possible: 3 smells of that place, 3 sounds of that place, 3 tastes of that place, 3 textures of that place.

Part 2: Time for mythmaking. List what you consider the 3 most magical aspects of the weather (temperature, wind, sunlight, moonlight, clouds, etc.) and 3 things that flow and/or grow in your place. Turn off the part of your brain that feels obligated to historical fact and create a place that feels like paradise, too good to be true.

Part 3: Who is the nymph, god, or presiding deity of your place? Feel free to invent one. Feel free to imagine that one of the presiding deities is one of the species who lives there. Describe them. How do they move through this place? How do they respond to suffering there? What aspects of your place did they take delight in creating? Limit yourself to a few lines.

Part 4: Now write a draft that describes your place, including, if it sparks something for you, the deity of that place. At some point in your process, find a way for you or the deity (or both!) to say goodbye to that place. What is being said goodbye to? The plants, the animals, the clouds, the wind, the sky, the way the light falls, or the water flows? A moment there? How do you or your deity say goodbye?

Bill McKibben writes, “There is no future in loving nature.” Your poem can be a means for acknowledging the no-future of your lovely place and holding space for the love that makes it mourned and lovely.

Cecily Parks

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Cecily Parks

Cecily Parks is the author of two book of poetry and editor of The Echoing Green: Poems of Fields, Meadows, and Grasses. Her newer work appears in The New Yorker, A Public Space, The New Republic, Best American Poetry 2022, and elsewhere. The poetry editor for ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, she teaches in the MFA Program at Texas State.