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.

Jennifer Atkinson on “Landscape with Jeffers and the Connecticut River”

“Landscape with Jeffers and the Connecticut River” returns to a meadow I’ve known as long as I can remember. My father grew up across the street, and my maternal grandparents lived just a mile or two up Jail Hill. Luckily, a bit of the meadow has been set aside as parkland, so the field where as a child I flew my kite and pretended to fish is still open meadow. Often, in dreams, I find myself wading through its high grass and goldenrod or walking out into the wide green river. I, all my various I’s, am here.

Is it an ecopoem? The place it invokes isn’t majestic or pristine wilderness. Just beyond its upstream border, there used to be a dump where the town burned its garbage. All day long windrows of trash seethed and stunk. Gulls and crows fought over our leftover meatloaf. This is land that’s been inhabited by humans as long as humans have lived in eastern North America.

Nor is the poem eco in the sense of being environmentalist, or at least not directly. These days we all know, even those who still publicly deny it, that we are living in an ongoing climate catastrophe—right now—and it’s getting worse with each passing day. We know the danger the planet is in, and moreover we know we are the cause of that danger. I don’t think an ecopoem needs to remind us of that. We know it all too well. The water is rising, the storms are intensifying, and those least at fault will suffer first.

But how do we live with our knowledge and the emotional cloud of fear, guilt, anger, grief, and helplessness, a cloud that surrounds us, each of us alone, and all of us together? That cloud has become intrinsic to my ecopoetical work. Burdened with the beauty and loss and malicious awfulness ahead, weighted with the anxiety that hits whenever a winter day dawns without frost on the ground or another “unprecedented” downpour rings in the gutter, how do I live? How do I find language and form for my fear and still share my granddaughter’s joy in spotting blue-winged wasps on the goldenrod or a clawed footprint in the mud?

Writing Prompt

Three quite different prompts toward finding your own version of eco-inflected poetry:

  • I suggest you pay very, very close attention to a place you can visit and revisit over time, whether that’s a night and a day or across several seasons. Get to know some of the billion interwoven lives there, the changes in weather and light, the names of some of the trees and animals, the way you and other humans affect and are affected by the place and its systems. Reading is okay, too. Not all of your research—lived or read experience—will get into your poem, of course, but try to let the place in-form you and your lines and sentences.
  • This statement is sometimes attributed to the painter Cezanne: “The landscape thinks itself in me.” (I came across the quote again recently in T.J. Clark’s If These Apples Should Fall: Cezanne and the Present (Thames & Hudson, 2022) but I think it’s cited widely elsewhere as well. I’m not sure I can agree with the thinking there myself. How about you? You can make yourself an eco/ekphrastic poem if you like, thereby giving yourself the excuse to spend an hour or an afternoon with Cezanne. But maybe, all by itself, that sentence will sustain your own investigation of an I’s relationship to place. Or maybe you’ll want to jump off that same sentence as a way of exploring what “landscape” even is.
  • Try writing a poem that includes a line or lines from another poet. Here, I quote Robinson Jeffers, an awesome (and flawed) ecopoet of the last century. Who will you honor in your own eco-inflected, eco-aware ecopoem?

Jennifer Atkinson

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Jennifer Atkinson

Jennifer Atkinson

Jennifer Atkinson is the author of six books of poetry. The most recent, A Gray Realm the Ocean, won the Poets Out Loud prize, and was published by Fordham University Press in 2022. Individual poems have appeared in journals including Field, Image, Witness, Poecology, Tupelo Quarterly, The Missouri Review, and Cincinnati Review. She teaches in the MFA and BFA programs at George Mason University in Virginia. More at