Poetics as Ecosystem: The End of Abstraction

  1. Poetics as Ecosystem: The Edge Effect

In discussion with Anne Champagne, an astute eco-feminist and longtime environmentalist, I raised the idea of punk music as a force that shook up the music industry in the late 1970s being analogous to ‘slam’ poetry. Although much of the music produced by punk bands wasn’t particularly good, it did give pop music – which was languishing in mediocrity – a much-needed kick in the butt. The direct outgrowth of that was the New Wave movement and alternate, underground bands such as Talking Heads, Nick Cave, U2, REM, XTC and many others whose work has been more lasting and impactful. Anne responded with one of her Eureka moments. “It’s just like what happens in an ecosystem,” she said. “Some of the most diverse biology occurs at the margins where different ecosystems intersect, known in ecology as ‘the edge effect.’” Ecologist Allan Savory has proposed that the best way to make arid landscapes bloom again is to bring in large herds of ungulates to break up the crust of the dry soil so seeds can take root. (The idea has been seriously challenged by other ecologists; see links in comment below. I use it here purely as analogy to illustrate my point.) A similar ecological principle could be said to apply to the arts. Every once in a generation or so, the crust of the reigning orthodoxy needs to be broken up so that new seeds can blow in and take root.

The evolutionary model is also instructive here. Evolution, contrary to popular belief, is not simply development in a straight line. The science of genetics in recent decades has proven that humans come with certain things hard-wired, generation after generation, while epigenetics shows the clear influence of the social and physical environment on the expression of our genes. Certain things recur throughout evolutionary history even as other things are gradually modified. The tabula rasa social theory of human nature has thus failed to withstand scientific scrutiny.

Thus, it has been argued that humans could be called ‘homo narrens’ as well as ‘homo sapiens,’ that is, we come hard-wired with an instinct and a template for narrative. Jonathan Gottschall, an English professor at Washington and Jefferson College, who has been described as a ‘literary Darwinist,’ has noted that story themes aren’t unique to each specific culture, but in fact, repeat universal themes reflecting our common underlying biology and evolutionary development.[1] Elementary, my dear Watson. We’re biological creatures, after all.

Jonathan Gottschall’s literary Darwinism sees literature in the context of evolutionary development. Courtesy Wikimedia.

This is merely science catching up with the great psychologist Carl Jung, and his concept of the collective unconscious. Jung formulated this idea based on an extensive study of world mythology and literature, and noted, as Gottschall has done in his studies, the ‘eternal recurrence’ of certain story themes across all cultures. Thus, the direction of literary history, like evolutionary history, could be said to be both elliptical and linear. It loops and repeats through time, even as storytelling conventions change. As Gottschall explains: “…the line of work runs from generation to generation in continuous circles, bending to intellectual fashions and the rhetoric of powerful personalities.”[2]

While Gottschall and his colleagues apply an empirical, scientific model to teasing out the evolutionary, biological basis of literature, the same can’t be said of the changing trends and theories of writing, e.g. Romanticism vs. Postmodernism. This would be a misapplication of the empirical model to the arts, where, as new discoveries are made and then ‘proven,’ the old ones must be forever discarded. It’s not an either-or equation: either literature develops along a linear path or it doesn’t. Another analogy would be quantum theory, where light can exist as both particle and wave. “If (the naturalistic theorists) are right and not only human nature but its outermost literary productions can be solidly connected to biological roots, it will be one of the great events of intellectual history,” writes E.O. Wilson.[3] (It’s worth noting in this context that the collection of essays Gottschall edited, The Literary Animal, which challenges the reigning orthodoxy of the social and literary constructivists, was nearly unable to be published despite its authors’ credentials.)

This would all fit nicely within the poetics proposed by Jim Dodge in the Introduction to the Cascadia poetry anthology Make it True. “The overarching principle informing bioregional poetics is sometimes called the ‘biocentric’ or ‘ecological’ view, where life in all its forms and myriad relationships is central to all aesthetic considerations. …The bioregion is the body of metaphor. To communicate, art requires a shared set of references, sources held in common.”[4] (italics mine) Which brings me back to the cyclical nature of poetics, just as in Nature all things are cyclical. Resiliency in ecosystems comes from diversity, which is created through cross-fertilization, the meetings at the margins. The time for a hermetically sealed academy of prescribed poetics is past. Now is the time for openness as to both form and content, but especially to the cross-fertilization from our poetic past as well as its impulses toward the future. And a return to the openness of language as a vehicle for communication rather than abstruse intellectual puzzles designed for a select in-group.

  1. Abstraction, What Is Thy Name?

“I wonder if postmodernism is still reigning. Perhaps we should be saying, the king is dead, long live the king.”

—Gary Geddes, editor of 20th Century Poetry & Poetics[5]

Seattle poet Paul Nelson speaks of the problem with abstractions in poetry. I certainly agree that in the hands of unskilled poets or amateurs this is an easy pitfall. However I must challenge what is meant by abstractions. The list Nelson cites of ‘abstractions,’ including qualities such as courage, joy, peace, love, etc., are traits we have come to know in great detail through millennia.[6] In no small measure this is due to writers and poets themselves, those pioneers of human consciousness whose work involves delving deeply into the implications of these very qualities. Surely by now we’re socially evolved enough to instantly know what is meant or at least implied by terms such as love, courage or joy. And yes, to each person those qualities will have unique associations, just as a well-crafted metaphor does. But to suggest that the use of such ‘abstractions’ causes a poem to fail is unfounded. Clumsy or impenetrable language and clichés is where a poem fails, regardless of the poetic form.

The irony is that the postmodernists, in rejecting this type of abstraction in verse, have gone on to create their own kinds of abstraction. By using language as a kind of intellectual toy, by claiming that all meaning is relative, that there are no common referential touchstones beyond specific cultural conditioning (something disproven by science; see The Literary Animal), we toss readers into an abstract sea where poetry is not meant to communicate but simply to exist as a monument to its creator. To use a visual arts analogy, I would argue it’s the Abstract Expressionists who are being “presumptuous and irrelevant” by rejecting calls for art to communicate.[7] Audiences are simply expected to kneel at the altar of their brilliance, never questioning the artist as to the potential meanings of the work. The result is that to all but a handful of followers trained in the form, such art becomes irrelevant because most people cannot relate to it. The doctrine of ‘Art for Art’s Sake,’ which began as an effort to free artists from the tyranny of utilitarianism in art, ends up becoming not only self-referential, but self-indulgent.[8]

Tom Wayman almost single-handedly established the genre of 'work poetry' in Canadian literature. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Tom Wayman almost single-handedly established the genre of ‘work poetry’ in Canadian literature. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

It’s certainly worthwhile for artists to question the received understandings of words. In the hands of propagandists, language has been employed to motivate entire populations to support war and other atrocities. At such moments in history, questioning the status quo of language is essential. But as Tom Wayman says in my interview Wayman Gets Real,[9] if the way poets respond to the fractures of postmodern society is simply to create verse that mirrors that fracture, then they’ve missed the point. He calls it the “imitative fallacy,” where “in order to write about boredom you have to write in a boring way, that if you want to write about our fractured world you have to write in a fractured way. That’s a fallacy; it’s actually not very good writing. If you write a boring book it’s just boring, or if you write a fractured book it’s just fractured. You’re not giving anyone any insight into boredom or any insight into fracture.”

But wait! The poet actually imparting insight to the reader? Actually striving to find a sense of meaning in the world? Horrors! Shades of ‘retrograde’ Romanticism! Yet to return to the ecosystem metaphor, we don’t say that the moon in its retrograde phase is any less important than in its waxing phase, do we? And what’s so retrograde about the Romantic poets, who had the intuitive foresight to warn of the excesses of industrial capitalism at its very outset? Excesses which we today are now experiencing as global climate change, massive species extinction, and a return to the feudal economics of the Middle Ages. I’m not arguing for a return to the classical verse forms used by the Romantics, but to a Romantic sensibility. Not sentimentality but a genuine connection with the Earth and our fellow creatures that informs our poetry. To do that requires clear language, not abstraction.

George Orwell had little patience for apolitical writing. Courtesy Wikimedia.

The fact is that abstractionist verse has unwittingly served the power elite by de-politicizing language. As George Orwell wrote in his 1946 essay Why I Write, “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” (italics mine) Declassified files from the CIA in the early post-World War II period show that they financially supported the global propagation of Abstract Expressionism.[10] Paul Nelson notes that something on a smaller scale happened with the Idaho Writers Program.[11] While the main goal of the CIA’s ‘long leash’ art funding was to counter Soviet propaganda about the “decadence” of American art, ironically Abstract Expressionism seems more to confirm than deny that assertion. And for the political elite it had the added bonus of convincing artists that political content in art was retrograde. It meant one less front for government intelligence agencies to have to engage, leaving it to the popular songwriters of the 1960s to voice the revolutionary insurgency of the masses. As Tom Wayman explains in Wayman Gets Real: “In fact the way (abstract, non-linear writing) has been accepted by academia shows that it’s not at all a challenge to the status quo. And I’ve read that it’s the first time in history that what purports to be the avant-garde is actually pushed only by the academy. Always the avant-garde was outside the academy and antagonistic to it. Here it’s entirely contained within the fold. It just seems so disconnected from reality.”[12] (italics mine)

Punk rock gave the music industry a much-needed kick in the ass, just as slam poetry is doing to poetic orthodoxies today. Courtesy Wikimedia

Again I return to the analogy of punk rock and its shaking up of the popular music industry as a kind of correlate with ‘slam’ poetry today. Neither seems to offer much of lasting significance, yet both were vital re-energizing forces for their respective arts. In ecological terms again, the ‘edge effect.’ What arises in the aftermath of such shaking up is what holds the greatest potential. If ‘slam’ does nothing else but loosen the stranglehold of postmodern abstractionism in verse, it will have been worth it. And I can hardly wait to see where it takes poetry in the decades ahead. Wayman too is cautiously optimistic. “The head art, people get interested in it for awhile but it’s thin, it’s brittle, whereas the stuff that moves you emotionally in some way, that’s not just clever head games, I think that has a more enduring quality.” (italics mine)

Already there are hints of the new direction poetry could take in journals such as the UK’s Earth Lines. “Here, stories rooted in the natural world are often fierce, written with naked passion; a ‘grit and groundedness’ that its co-founder Dr. Sharon Blackie calls for,” writes journalist Lucy Purdy in Positive News. Purdy notes that the Romantic poets considered writing “a reconciler of nature and man”… and while “the popularity of what is loosely called nature writing has ebbed and flowed through modern history… seemingly inevitable ecological collapse has prompted a surge of renewed interest in the field.”[13] The scale of the crisis requires all hands on deck, whether we build solar panels or poems.

Blackie isn’t calling for the kind of Romanticism often misconstrued as “starry-eyed” or dripping with Pollyanna optimism. “We want a bayonet to pierce through some of the excess of wellbeing and self-satisfaction, a broom to sweep away all the bullshit,” says Blackie. “We want to make people think about what really matters to them. What we cannot bear to lose.”[14] And what is self-satisfaction if not the self-congratulatory cleverness of hyper-intellectualized, opaque verse? In this sense, a Romantic sensibility could hardly be construed as ‘retrograde,’ given where we are in ecological history.

Fittingly, the last words go to Lawrence Ferlinghetti in Populist Manifesto No. 1:

“No time now for the artist to hide

above, beyond, behind the scenes,

indifferent, paring his fingernails,

refining himself out of existence.”

Amen to that.

[1] Michael Margolis, ‘Humans Hard-Wired for Storytelling,’ http://www.getstoried.com/hard-wired-for-storytelling/

[2] Jonathan Gottschall, The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, edited by Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, Northwestern University Press, 2005, p. 221.

[3] E.O. Wilson, The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, edited by Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, Northwestern University Press, 2005, p. vii.

[4] http://leafpress.ca/Make_It_True/Introduction.pdf

[5] Geddes holds a degree in English and Philosophy from UBC. After completing a postgraduate Diploma in Education at Reading University in the UK, followed by the M.A. and Ph.D. in English at University of Toronto, he taught English briefly at the University of Victoria (1972-1974). He taught English and Creative Writing widely throughout Canada to support his passion for writing, but mainly at Concordia University in Montreal from 1978-1998, after which he was given an honorary three-year visiting appointment as Distinguished Professor of Canadian Culture in the Center for Canadian-American Studies at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

In addition to writing and editing more than 35 books of poetry, fiction, drama, non-fiction, criticism, translation and anthologies, Geddes has been very active in promoting other Canadian writers. Source: University of Toronto Libraries, http://canpoetry.library.utoronto.ca/geddes/

[6] Paul Nelson, correspondence with the author, May 2015.

[7] “Calls for art to communicate are presumptuous and irrelevant.” Abstract Expressionist painter Clyfford Still, quoted by Paul Nelson in the Introduction to Make It True. Following on the heels of Dodge’s call for a bioregional poetics, this quote seems out of place and undercuts the argument. Why create “biocentric” poetics if not to communicate?

[8] The online reference at the University of Virginia Library, under ‘Art for art’s sake,’ notes the following: “In the twentieth century the idea of Art for Art’s Sake undergoes a rather radical transformation, generating
a more serious and systematic doctrine, and exerting
a more positive influence upon artistic creation. It now
appears in new interpretations of such concepts as
“pure poetry,” “significant form,” “plastic form.” The
significance of this movement lies in the insistence that
the work of art is an autonomous and self-contained
entity; its meaning and value are exhaustively contained in its material and formal being. Works of art
do not need to borrow significance from biographical,
 psychological, historical, or sociological sources; their
significance lies in the formal structures that they realize in a material medium.”


This is ironic given that some of the proponents toward Art for Art’s Sake included the Romantic poets, with the laudable goal of not being forced to create art that was purely utilitarian, and could therefore be exploited for political ends. The very impulse itself then, in its more recent historical development, has become subverted. Being apolitical in this context serves the elite just as well as forcing artists to create utilitarian art. I think the writer George Sand realized this early. In her Letters of George Sand, Volume 3, she noted the emptiness of “L’art pour l’art,” the original French coinage of the concept. She asserted that artists had a “duty to find an adequate expression to convey it to as many souls as possible,” ensuring that their works were accessible enough to be appreciated. Current writers, including Tom Wayman, Wendell Berry, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, have made similar statements. Other contemporary poets, such as Mary Oliver and Gary Geddes, imply the same through diction that is precise and communicates clearly.

[9] Sean Arthur Joyce, Wayman Gets Real, Part 1: The Emptiness of Abstraction, https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2011/03/29/wayman-gets-real-the-emptiness-of-abstraction-interview-with-tom-wayman-part-one/

[10] Frances Stonor Saunders, ‘Modern art was CIA ‘weapon,’ The Independent, October 22, 1995. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/modern-art-was-cia-weapon-1578808.html

[11] Paul Nelson, correspondence with the author, May 2015.

[12] Sean Arthur Joyce, Wayman Gets Real, Part 1: The Emptiness of Abstraction, https://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/2011/03/29/wayman-gets-real-the-emptiness-of-abstraction-interview-with-tom-wayman-part-one/

[13] Lucy Purdy, ‘An honest conversation with Earth,’ Positive News, spring 2015; New Internationalist online, http://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2015/01/22/language-environment/

[14] Lucy Purdy, ‘An honest conversation with Earth,’ ibid.

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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7 Responses to Poetics as Ecosystem: The End of Abstraction

  1. paulenelson says:

    The exact Clyfford Still quote is: “Demands for communication are presumption and irrelevant.”

  2. paulenelson says:

    And you still do not understand Pound’s point from 100 years ago.

  3. paulenelson says:


    Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something.

    Don’t use such an expression as “dim lands of peace.” It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.

    Go in fear of abstractions. Don’t retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose. Don’t think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths.

  4. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Paul.

  5. JFC says:

    Cattle that grazed according to Savory’s method needed expensive supplemental feed, became stressed and fatigued, and lost enough weight to compromise the profitability of their meat. And even though Savory’s Grazing Trials took place during a period of freakishly high rainfall, with rates exceeding the average by 24 percent overall, the authors contend that Savory’s method “failed to produce the marked improvement in grass cover claimed from its application.” The authors of the overview concluded exactly what mainstream ecologists have been concluding for 40 years: “No grazing system has yet shown the capacity to overcome the long-term effects of overstocking and/or drought on vegetation productivity.”


  6. JFC: Fair enough. Thanks for the update on Savory’s method. My main point was to use the method as an analogy for the breaking up of old orthodoxies so new ones can grow.

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