Ecopoetry and the present environmental crisis

by Maria Ivana Trevisani Bach


 Dalla rivista culturale"In Limine"


di Roberto Mosena e Fabio Pierangeli

(Universitŕ Tor Vergata, ROMA)




The present ecological crisis comes also from the cultural crisis due to not having understood that Nature is not an object of inexhaustible consumption at our arbitrary disposal, but it is, on the contrary, our own house, a house to be preserved for the survival of the ecosystem and of our own species.

Isolated warnings in this sense were already given in the '60s by the intellectuals of the "Club of Rome" (Aurelio Peccei, Alexander King, Asimov, various Nobel prizes and others), warnings that became concrete in 1972 with the famous publication "The limits of the Growth" (1).

Analogous warnings were given during the first Earth day, 22nd of April 1970 (2). This date can be considered as the official starting date of the taking of conscience of the global ecological crisis. Nevertheless, the consequent political decisions, even if partial and insufficient, only began from the '90s (Agenda 21, Protocol of Kyoto, etc.).

In this context gradually arose the awareness that Progress and Development were not equivalent concepts, in consideration of the fact that a boundless progress would have conducted well soon to the exhaustion of the resources and to an irreversible environmental crisis.


The birth of new ethics

The myth of the boundless Progress also implied the idea of the human superiority over Nature, considered as an inexhaustible resource in our possession. When this vertical vision of Man master of Nature (Anthropocentrism) collapsed, a horizontal, or better circular vision of the relationship Man-Nature took place.

Man, once the dominant figure, turned himself to responsible figure of this priority relationship. Responsibility inevitably brings with itself the necessity of ethics (3). Dropped the anthropocentrism, also the idea of exclusively inter-human ethics were dropped in favor of an olistic vision in which Nature and Man are a solid interconnected subject of ethics.

The necessary and urgent environmental ethics are inserted in that wide culture that asserts itself in those years, a culture that looks again for values and goals without entrapping them in ideologies nor in hierarchical superstructures (4).

Such a research for new values has been supported by different literary activities, at first limited and occasional, then more aware and organized in specific cultural movements, which were arising in various parts of the world, especially in the English-speaking countries. Among these movements is Ecopoetry, dealt with in this article, a movement that seems the most effective, also considering that Poetry, with the power of its suggestions and the ability to arouse emotions, is able to awaken the consciences setting them up to listening to the problems of the 21st Century and, therefore, to taking actions to resolve them.

From these new literary activities many works of criticism derive, taking the denomination of "Ecocriticism." (5)

Ecopoetry counts by now several critical essays, Manifestos, publications and anthologies in many parts of the world.


Ecological literature in Italy

Also in Italy begins the critical study of literary works introducing ethical interactions between Man and Nature. The first deep study in this direction has been realized in 2007 by Serenella Jovino with the volume "Literary Ecology". For Ms Jovino the literary ecology must be intended as a critical study of literary texts, also of the past, directed not only to the research and the analysis of ecological themes, but also to the social, economic and ethical interconnections deriving from the present environmental crucial situation.

In the first part of Ms Jovino’s volume, an up-to-date and complete documentation of the literary activities related to ecology, primarily Anglo-Saxon, can be found. In the second part of the book, due to the lack of analogous Italian recent references, some authors (Calvino, Pasolini, Ortese, etc.) are considered in order to analyze their ante litteram ambientalism.

The volume by Ercole Ferrari "The idea of Nature in the history of literature" also analyses authors of the past which dealt with environment or Nature.

They are limited and sporadic interventions, not framed in a conscious Echo-literary cultural Italian movement. (6)

Alone stands the case, in the year 2005, of the publication of a text of Ecopoetry: "Ecopoems in the Space - Time" (7) by M. Ivana Trevisani Bach, author of this article, a book of ecopoems tracing back to analogous texts of "Ecopoetry" in English, that also contains a Manifesto of the Italian Ecopoetry (8).

The anthology "Green American", by Barron and Anna Re, Edizioni Ambiente, is going to be published. It is a collection of American texts about literature and environment translated into Italian (9).


Ecopoetry: the contents

But then, what is Ecopoetry? In Wikipedia this definition can be found: "Ecopoetry is a particular kind of poetry which developed in the last few decades of the 20th Century in the English-speaking countries and that gave rise to a real poetic movement based on themes and subjects related with ecology."

The definition seems clear and exhaustive. In fact, some more precise information is necessary. The mere fact of writing verses on Nature or on Ecology is not enough to be considered "eco-poets."

The eco-poet, as a matter of fact, is not the chorister of the Nature of Arcadia or of the classical bucolic poetry, but is one who picks and underlines, besides its beauty, the problems that upset Nature. Ecopoetry is therefore the poetry of the man who feels interconnected with the creation and that reports emotions of it from the inside; the tortured animal, the uprooted secular tree, the whole polluted Earth, directly speak through the verses and send their messages of alarm or pain. As the English poetess Helen Moore (10) writes:

May Gaia

our Great Mother,

speak through me...

may I be a channel,

a conduit

for Nature's words!

In conclusion, the Ecopoet is the medium between natural world and human community; he does not only speak about Nature, but he also speaks for Nature and, to do it, he doesn't ascend onto a pedestal to point out the way that must be followed, he is not the "prophet", he doesn't make resounding and commemorative poetry but simple poetry, as humble as the oppressed subjects that express themselves through it.

The ecopoet is not tormented by his afflicted ego, as crowds of poets have egocentrically done for a long time, but he addresses the other living beings, giving them voice.

Sandor Pétofi, the most famous Hungarian poet, used to say, obviously referring to the patriotic-romantic feeling of his time:

If  you can't do anything else but sing

your pains and your joys,

the world can live without you

and then

… just throw away the Sacred Lira of the poet… (11)

Something very similar is performed nowadays by the eco-poet, dealing Nature and its safeguard, that is, the theme that imperiously asserted itself in our consciences in these decades, in a circumstantial and conscious way. Thus, Poetry regains its role of communicator of collective emotions.

The ecopoet becomes the spokesman of the environmental emergency and establishes a new relationship with Nature based on parity, and acquires awareness of the rights of the other living beings to which he recognizes a biological nature similar to ours. Hence the duty to cause no sufferings to them and to protect the environment that allows our life as well as theirs.


Ecopoetry: the form

Ecopoetry breaks free from the isolation of the restricted erudite literary cultures, it abandons the old sibylline fashions of the avant-gardes and the poetic habits tied up to particular local traditions, to open to a simple and clear poetic communication comprehensible to all the cultures, and therefore also easily translatable, to spread among a wider audience, as required by the General Conference of UNESCO in the message of the World Day of Poetry 2007 (12).


Theoretical basis of Ecopoetry

Inside the Ecopoetry movement, a reflection has been developed about the way poetry is nowadays dealt with.

An eco-poem consists both of an emotional moment, typical of any poetic communication, and of a rational moment, the awareness of the environmental emergency and the necessity to find solutions. Thus, the cultural prejudice of the last Century that fixed a precise separation between reason and artistic creation becomes a superseded idea.

According to the Canadian poetess and researcher Di Brand (studying the recent poetic movements born after Post-modernism, that she temporarily defines "Post-post-modern") the separation between these two realities has produced, in the past time, a conflict in the expressive ability. An expression merely emotional in art and merely rational in science and philosophy. Such a barrier is today "repaired" in some kinds of artistic productions through the "reparative thinking", that is a way to interconnect thoughts and feelings, able to produce an artistic multidimensional expression near to the sensibility and the cultural formation of today's men.

A binomial of this type can be found in Ecopoetry. Why Poetry and Ecology put together? Because this is the emergency of the present world and, on this subject, emotion and reason must call us to our responsibilities and lead us to sustainable actions.

Ecologists know how to describe with precise mathematical data and with detailed analysis the actual environmental crisis, they also know how to suggest solutions to this problem, but it is not sure that they will succeed in persuade us to action. The environmental sciences alone will not succeed in leading men to the protection of Nature.

Alarming and full-detailed data can be published on the deforestation, or otherwise…

A deafening noise

rapes the silence of the Wood.

The blade of steel greedily,

screeching and vibrating,

tears to pieces the wet big trunk

of the high, marvelous,

majestic Beech tree.


The stem bends,

creaking on a side,

and interlaces its branches

with its brother-branches

seeking a last hug.

Then, with immense rumble,

it crashes abruptly

making the earth tremble,

in the scared big forest

frightened by the last outrage. (13)

And immediately we feel turned into trees and forests. We live their pain as ours. And it is proper, because the destiny of the Earth is also our destiny.


Ecopoetry and the Globalization

The globalization carries new forms of environmental colonization, therefore the principles of the environment must refer to global dimensions.

Due to exploitation and bribery, the zones of greater pollution coincide almost always with those of greater poverty. Accordingly, the ecological emergencies are more and more connected to social emergencies (14).

The globalization facilitates not only the global exchange of commodities and financial products, but also of immaterial goods such as ideas, skills and information. What is more, thanks to the new means of communication (Internet, TV, etc.) they travel very quickly into the world. The information on the actual environmental crisis is therefore globally known, nevertheless a new ecological moral has difficulties in finding consolidation, perhaps because it is insufficiently supported by culture.

If the new ethical values have to spread globally, also global has to be their reference language. A consolidated global language is, notoriously, the scientific one, but also literature has to take the responsibility of a new demand of intercultural communication, able to be widely spread without the support of cultural references from the refined societies, often dominant. For the birth of new forms of literary communication, will be of help the de-construction of the language recommended by the post-modern reflection, following paths of universal comprehensibility and sensibility.

Conclusive reflections

The continuous and superabundant storm of news from the media has accustomed our minds to separate the words, the images and the information from the emotions. This has created a distortion among the rational thought, that gives an explanation to the events, and the enormous quantity of emotions that on such events are restrained. This has produced an aboulia of ideals and values, that has deprived us of the necessary enthusiasm to face the emergencies of our time.

Poetry, however, could wake up the benumbed and apathetic minds making them sensitive to the values of the 21st Century. It, feeding of the sap made of thoughts, emotions and imagination coming from the different human communities, always creates new solicitations which, on their turn, are universally transmitted, collected and developed.

A new literary culture could have a great influence on the way human beings feel and think, and therefore on the way we act, with ecologically correct behaviors of free and careful participation.

Man, living being among the living beings, becomes aware of his small place in the universe and of his unprivileged presence on the Earth but, at the same time, of his role of destruction or protection of this common House. In particular, the poet, as Jonathan Bate writes, " must have the ability to return us to the Earth that is our house." (15)




Here is the most meaningful passage of the document that fell like a thunderbolt on a world that, until then, was confidently and irresponsibly running towards Progress: "In the hypothesis that the present line of development will continue unchanged in the five fundamental sectors (population, industrialization, pollution, production of foods, consumption of the natural resources), humanity is destined to achieve the natural limits of the development within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a sudden, uncontrollable decline of the level of population and of the industrial system"

The hierarchy of anthropocentrism is demolished; Man and Nature, with equal dignity, become a unique interacting entity. As a consequence, other hierarchical supremacies also fall: masculine over feminine (eco-feminism), a social or ethnic group over another (social ecology). Hierarchies are de-constructed and equal rights are granted to the different subjects. There are no inferior beings either in Nature or in Society (Deep ecology of Arne Naess:

As the wrecker and de-constructing so-called Postmodern culture suggests, both from the linguistic and conceptual point of view. Postmodernism is not a unique structured and organized movement, on the contrary it is a set of different cultural phenomena from different areas, in which the ideological and linguistic tricks are contested and are seen as tools of cultural abuse or even of political repression. To the absolute ideologies and theories, a multicultural vision made of partial realities is juxtaposed, out of different and peripheral cultures, more predisposed to dialogue, substantially centrifugal, rather than converging in a unique absolute cultural structure. A diversified culture that has its roots in the various local environmental situations and that is conveyor of different emerging cultural expressions, think of Bio-architecture, of the Land-art, and Ecopoetry itself.

For Ecopoetry is fundamental the volume by J. Scott Bryson "Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction" (Foreword by John Elder), The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 2002 0-87-480-701-8


In the international anthology "Literature of Nature" by Patrick Murphy (1998), Italy is one of the few countries not represented.

M. Ivana Trevisani Bach"Ecopoesie nello Spazio-Tempo" Serarcangeli Editore, Roma , 2005 ISBN 88-7408-058-1

Anna Re "Americana verde; Letteratura e ambiente negli Stati Uniti " Edizioni Ambiente

For further information on Helen Moore:

Sandor Petofi : "A XIX. század költői" ( "To the poets of the XIX Century"), 1847

Message by Koichiro Matsuura, Director General of Unesco, during the World Day of Poetry 2007 (

Poem "Albero" ("Tree"), from a collection of poems characterized by the emphatic involvement with plants, animals and our mother Earth (Gaia). For more details please visit

Vandana Shiva, Indian ecologist and phisicist. See the author’s page on Wikipedia for further details.

Jonathan Bate Romantic Ecology (1991) and The Song of the Earth (2000)