1000 Books In 10 Years; Vol. 203: Greening The Lyre (Environmental Poetics and Ethics), by David W. Gilcrest

For those of you who are used to reading reviews for fiction here, I apologize, but I will, again, be reviewing another non-fiction book, and it will again be an eco-criticism book, this time David W. Gilcrest’s Greening The Lyre (Environmental Poetics and Ethics).

Before each chapter, and the introduction, Gilcrest places a couple epigraphs, which I found to be interesting.  The first being a quote from Socrates: “Even the wolf, you know, Phaedrus, has a right to and advocate, as they say.”  Interesting, on a political level I think.  The thought that animals have a right to a voice.  Being a carnivorous society, we don’t tend to lend animals much of a voice politically, but the animals, and the environment, are very much in need of a voice politically, and this is what Gilcrest hopes to convince the reader of in this short monograph.  In the introduction Gilcrest cites Lawrence Buell and Buell’s steps toward developing an interconnected relationship with nature so that both humanity and nature can live in concert.  They are as follows:

1. The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.

2. The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.

3. Human accountability to the environment  is part of the text’s ethical orientation.

4. Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text.

In chapter one Gilcrest dives into the idea of being interconnected with nature, starting off with a quote from Goethe’s Ephirrhema: “No thing is single”.  This idea that nothing is on its own, but connected with all that is around it.  Gilcrest pushes the idea further with a quote from Kenneth Rexroth’s The Heart of Herakles:  “I can no longer/Tell where I begin and leave off.”  He then goes on to cite Aldo Leopld’s: A Sand County Almanac: “The first ethics dealt with the relation between individuals… Later accretions dealt with the relation between the individual and society… There is as yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to the land and the animals and plants… The extension of this third element…. is… an ecological necessity.”  This goes back to the opening epigraph of the work where Socrates states that nature has a right to an advocate.  This idea is furthered along with an analysis of Stanley Kunitz’s poem The Snakes Of September where Gilcrest notes that the “rhetoric of contractual association presents the snakes as autonomous agents whose legal and perhaps moral stature is at least equal to that of the speaker.”  Ignoring nature need and right to representation will, if Ernesto Cardenal is right, to a revolution (from Cardenal’s New Ecology as quoted by Gilcrest):“Not only humans longer for liberation./All ecology groaned.  The revolution/is also for animals, rivers, lakes and trees.”  My favourite piece of this poem is the line: “Armadillos are very happy with this government.”

The though of animals being involved in the discussion of politics is refreshing and though humorous upon an initial glance, the implication is that they deserve to be not only a part of the political discourse, but to have representation in it.  Perhaps when the American decided that Black people were worth 3/5ths of a person, they should have extended that and appeased the animal population by making them worth at least 2/5ths or a person, no?  Gilcrest closes the chapter by looking at Robert Pack’s: Watchers, where alien beings witness the “essentially interdependent nature of life on our planet” and diagnose a fatal cancer, that cancer being humanity (reminiscent of Agent Smith’s appraisal of humanity as a virus in the Matrix.

Agent Smith: “Human beings are a disease. The cancer of this planet.”

And when I speak of Robert Pack, I mean Robert Pack the poet, not the former NBA star:

Robert Pack: Poet and Critic

NBA veteran Robrert Pack


Chapter two deals with the concept of nature’s voice.  Gilcrest borrows from Buell again here to suggest “that we lose a strategic rhetorical resource when we abandon anthropomorphism entirely.”  Some folks, as we saw in The Greening Of Literary Scholarship, believe we need to abandon anthropomorphism altogether, but others, like Gilcrest and Buell, believe that we need to face the fact that humanity as

Frederick Turner notes, is “like it or not, lords of creation”, and as such we need to embrace that role and take it seriously by listening to the voice of nature.

Native-American poet Linda Hogan

The other Linda Hogan, and her former husband.

Gilcrest touches on American Native poet Linda Hogan’s (not to be confused with the ex-wife of pro-wrestler Hulk Hogan, who is not a nature poet, and does not have very much ‘natural’ about he profile at all) Naming The Animals, in which Gilcrest suggests “links the ‘silencing’ of nature with the forces of conquest and environmental destruction.”  Language is also seen as a tool that separates us from nature, making it the other, and further separating nature within itself, by naming the bear and the wolf different names, we separate things that are innately joined in the context of an ecosystem.  This, in a way, silences nature.  In poetics though, we see poets personify nature and lend it a voice.  Gilcrest takes a look at the work of Sandilands who asks: “What is the authentic voice of nature?” and goes onto say that the “‘I’ that speaks in environmental discourse generally does not speak as the subject”.  This is an interesting though.  Sandilands indicates the “I”, but if ecocritics truly believe that we are interconnected, perhaps we should drop the use of the word ‘I’ and replace it with ‘we’?  I am reminded at once of Yevgeny Zamyatin classic dystopian novel WE, where, ultimately, the ‘we’ is sacrificed for the ‘I’.  Perhaps though Zamyatin had it wrong?  I am reminded of another work of science fiction, this time the film Contact (based on the novel of the same name by Author C. Clarke) where an alien race, whom humanity has gone to great lengths to contact, decides not to speak yet with humanity because it is still in the phase of its growth where it is obsessed with the cult of the “I” and that until humanity learns to think in terms of ‘we’ it has no interest in speaking with us.  Perhaps such ideas are too closely related with communism and as a result of the bad press job American has given communism, and the atrocities which China (who is NOT a communist nation by any stretch of the imagination) has committed in the name of communism, the general population just can’t get on board with these ideas.  But if our race is to survive, it seems we will have to shed the cult of individualism and embrace our role in the ecosystem that is Earth.

There is also a great quote from Burke who says: “I think we can consider ourselves different in kind from the other animals, without necessarily being overproud of our distinction.”  This made me think of Pearl Jams’ classic track from the album Vs.; Rats:

They don’t eat, don’t sleep

They don’t feed, they don’t seethe

Bare their gums when they moan and squeak

Lick the dirt off a larger one’s feet

They don’t push, don’t crowd

Congregate until they’re much too loud

Fuck to procreate till they are dead

Drink the blood of their so called best friend

They don’t scurry when something bigger comes their way

Don’t pack themselves together and run as one

Don’t shit where they’re not supposed to

Don’t take what’s not theirs, they don’t compare
They don’t scam, don’t fight

Don’t oppress an equals given rights

Starve the poor so they can be well fed

Line their holes with the dead ones bread
They don’t scurry when something bigger comes their way

Don’t pack themselves together and run as one (2x)

Don’t shit where they’re not supposed to

Don’t take what’s not theirs, they don’t compare…
Rats…They don’t compare  (2x)

Ben, the two of us need look no more  (6X)

Obviously, there are certain things which we do, which rats do not, and we need not be overly proud of the things that distinguish us from animals.

The chapter closes with Sandilands question: “Who… can speak for a tree, a pack, a swarm, a watershed, an ecosystem?”  The answer has to be “Humanity can.”  Because if it cannot, humanity will not survive. 

The third chapter fits very much in with the second, and sees Gilcrest cite John Tallmadge who sees nature as “an oppressed and silent class, in need of spokespersons”.  This idea of nature being its own class, like the working class or the ruling class, that has no political agency, lends a degree of personification to nature which desperately needs to be realize in actuality soon.  Norman Russell’s poem, Message of the Rain speaks to the poet’s experience of youth: “when i was a child/ i was a squirrel an bluejay a fox”.  He speaks to how he was one with the animals and could understand their speech, and how he longs to return to that interconnectedness as an adult entering his old age, but cannot because he fails to unlearn the walls of language that were built between he and nature.  Similar sentiments are echoed in Ira Sadoff’s In the Bog behind My House where he asks: “God teach me how to love the crows/for being crows” and how to “accept them in all their homicidal eminence”.  This idea, that we are disconnected from nature and cannot understand it runs throughout Green-Lit.

The forth chapter didn’t quite work out for me.  Gilcrest tries to define two types of discourses in it, one being poetry as exegesis, the other being poetry as hermeneutics.  Exegesis was originally a critical explanation of religious text, where as hermeneutics was an explanation of art or scientific text.  The two terms became practically interchangeable through time and Gilcrest, for me at least, doesn’t do a very good job of explaining where he sees the difference.  Either way, poetry is an explanation of nature.  He touches on Alexander Pope’s Essay On Man and notes that “Pope foresees a catastrophe in human overreaching”.

Pope‘s poems says: “Know thy own point: This kind, this due degree/Of blindness, weakness, Heaven bestows on thee./Submit”  Gilcrest suggest there is an implication here that humanity must submit to the limits of nature, and that “Failure to submit… threatens terrestrial if not cosmological disaster as it reveals our suicidal arrogance.”.  He goes onto quote Pope again who asks: “What if the foot, ordained the dust to tread,/Or hand, to toil, aspired to be the head?”  This, Gilcrest claims, is Pope acting “as an apologist for power and privilege” and I couldn’t agree more.  The working classes, as the privilege no doubt saw them, were predestined to serve as the feet and hands of the ruling classes, and should they aspire for upward mobility within the other classes, it would surely serve as a catastrophe.

Chapter five takes a look at a few poems I enjoyed.  One is Kenneth Burke’s Dialectician’s Hymn where he writes: “May we give true voice/To the statements of Thy creatures./ May our spoken words speak for them./With accuracy”.  There is obviously a religious element to this work which I am uncomfortable with, because I believe that trusting in a higher being to right things takes responsibility off of us, where it should be squarely placed, but I forgive those potentially problematic religious overtones because the poem is asking for the tools to pick up such responsibility and carry it out properly. It asks to have access to that voice of nature with Gilcrest explored in the second and third chapters.  Robert Frost’s poem Two Look At Two is also interesting because it explains how two humans, who have decided to end their day of travelling find that nature, and not they, will decide when the day’s activities are over.  When the two humans decide to rest they say “This is all”, but the poem’s narrator notes, “but this is not so” and a doe comes along and makes eye contact with the humans who are still.  When the doe leaves they say “This then is all”.  The narrator responds again: “But no, not yet” when a buck comes out and eyes the couple, who remains as still as they can, so still in fact that the buck thinks “I doubt if you’re as living as you look”.  Only when nature has decided that their day has concluded can the two rest.  The poem is interesting because the implications are so far reaching.  Humanity can claim that nature can support their activities all they want, and continue on as they wish, but there will be a point when nature is spent, and despite humanity’s claims to the contrary, nature will call a halt when it see fit, on it’s own agenda, and not on humanity’s.

Then there is the Kenneth Burke poem in which he notes that “Man is/the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal…. separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own/making…. rotten with perfection.”  Burke suggest that “symbols are ultimately not things, and that they inevitably direct our attention away from facets of our world” but notes that  while “We might… conclude that language is an insuperable barrier capable only of separating us from the natural world…. symbol systems that influence our conduct can ‘connect’ us to the world in productive ways.”  Here again Gilcrest cites Lawrence Buell, who asks: “Must literature always lead us away from the physical world, never back to it?”  Upon reading this I imagined a book whose opening page read: “CLOSE THIS BOOK AND GO OUTSIDE!”  I encourage the reader of this review to do that very thing, only to wait until you have concluded this review and sharing it on Facebook and Pinterest before doing so!  Adrienne Rich’s poem Rural Reflections paints an interesting picutre that has its own set of problematic: “This is the grass your feet are planted on./You paint it orange or you sing it green,/But you have never found a way to make the grass mean what you mean.”  The idea of singing the grass green made me think of synaesthesia straight away, a neurological condition in which (according to wiki) one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.  But the interesting problem of our trying to re-create nature is that even nature as we know it is not true nature in many instances.  We might go out onto our front lawns (if we have one) and step on the grass with our bare feet and feel that we are connecting with nature, but even such closeness fails to offer us true insight into nature as grass, as it is on our front lawns, is not grass as it naturally is.  Grass is meant to grow to seed, but we manipulate it, and sculpt it, so that we are unfamiliar with grass as it appears in nature.  Gilcrest also references Charles Wrights poem: Reading Lao Tzu Again in the New Year.  I think you are better off reading Lao Tzu’s The Tao Te Ching than reading this poem, since the poems is just a regurgitation of pieces from The Tao Te Ching.

Throughout the book Gilcrest spends his time blowing air into the balloon that is contemporary nature writing, or Green-Lit as I like to call, only to pop the balloon in the book’s afterword: “How can an art that is considerably marginalized in the public sphere alter the bearings of a culture bent on destruction?”  Good point. I mean, as good as a poem by Linda Hogan may be, is it going to reach as many people as an episode of American Idol?  Gilcrest admits freely that  “Other rhetorical acts, especially those that command a larger audience than does poetry, are likely to be more effective in transforming the way we approach the nonhuman.”  Other rhetorical acts?  Stand up comedy commands a larger audience than does poetry!  And if you’ve listened to a Louis CK routine lately, you will see that eco-critics have too few friends in such rhetorical acts:

Let us hope that Louis CK will not have the final word on our relationship with nature.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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