The submission date for my doctoral thesis is just around the corner! If you want to know what the thesis is all about, here is my abstract (although, like everything to do with the thesis, it is likely to change):
This thesis uses two methods of investigation—a critical essay on Robert Hass and a collection of poetry—to explore the relationship between contemporary poetry and the natural world.
Central to the early collections of American poet Robert Hass is the question of whether language can depict the natural world. Hass uses techniques to try to accurately describe the natural world in some poems while suggesting in others that language is limited in its ability represent the natural world. Hass’s use and refusal of poetic technique, and the tension it creates, has not previously been explored in the critical literature.
To address this critical gap, I use ecocritical approaches to examine Hass’s depiction of nature in his collections Field Guide, Praise, Human Wishes, and Sun Under Wood. During its short development, ecocriticism has fostered two main approaches for examining a text: a first-wave or realist approach, and a second-wave or evolutionary biological approach. Both approaches have been criticised for rejecting poststructuralist literary theory in favour of realism. The criticism has prompted the recent development of a nascent third-wave approach. I use two case studies to dramatise the limitations of the main approaches, respectively, and a third case study to test a third-wave approach developed for this thesis. The critical essay, then, uses three ecocritical lenses through which to examine ‘nature’ in Hass’s work, while simultaneously offering a new approach to add to the discussion about how the third wave can move ecocriticism into a stronger theoretical position.
The first-wave / realist case study explores Hass’s use of scientifically accurate names and descriptions to depict the natural world. This case study suggests that Hass sees the natural world as particular and valuable, and that he trusts language to represent the natural world. The second-wave case study concludes that Hass’s poems depict a Darwinian nature by drawing comparisons between human and nonhuman behaviour. While the parallels depict humans as animals, Hass also suggests that humans are separated from other animals by language, rational thought, and self-awareness. While both case studies usefully reveal aspects of Hass’s depiction of nature—that is, how his poems would seem to conceive of nature and the role humans play in it, they also serve to show that both first- and second-wave approaches are unable to investigate the tensions in Hass’s work between an attempt to represent nature and a scepticism about the representative powers of language; that is, these two popular ecocritical approaches are unable to address the poems in which Hass draws on poststructuralist notions of language.
A picture of a happy orangutan to encourage you to keep reading.
The final chapter of the critical essay proposes a third-wave case study, which uses an eco-performative approach to address these limitations. It concludes that Hass uses three methods—that of showing the limitations of language, qualifying language, and the theme of loss—to explore the role of the poem in our relationship to the natural world. The critical portion of this thesis concludes that, at times, Hass implies the poem is its own phenomenon, and that we should put issues of representation aside in order to take pleasure in the experience of poetry. In this way, Hass’s depiction of the natural world is a statement about poetry. The critical essay also concludes that for an ecocritical approach to have the sophistication necessary to examine a contemporary poet such as Hass, it must engage with poststructuralist notions of language. The critical essay, then, both offers a new way of conceiving of the role of nature in Hass’s poetry and proposes a means for the field of ecocriticism to move beyond its traditionally realist focus.
The creative component of the thesis—a collection of poetry—has been shaped and informed by the investigation of the critical essay. Similar to Hass, the creative work uses a series of strategies to explore the relationship between poetry and the natural world. While less polemic than Hass’s work, the poems call attention to the way our depictions of the natural world are constructed.
A central strategy of the creative work is the use of technical language and terminology from the fields of geography and geology. Rather than rely primarily on traditional lyric imagery, the poems use scientific discourses to suggest human emotions and situations. The unexpected and out-of-context use of technical language creates surprise in the poems, which highlights the constructed nature of scientific discourse. As the discourse has become part of the poem, the strategy suggests that—when also viewed out-of-context—other discourses about the natural world will reveal themselves to be equally constructed.
Other strategies used by the creative work include: depictions of the evolved human animal (with a focus on sexuality, mortality, and procreation), and a self conscious use of metaphor and double denotation in order to suggest how we conceptualise the natural world in terms of our own needs, for example, nature as a place of solace, as ‘other’ and ‘wild.’ While the strategies are used both explicitly and implicitly in the poems, as with the critical essay they call attention to the way poetic depictions of the natural world reflect human culture and intention, rather than the physical world.