This essay examines recent British poetry informed by Concrete and ‘open-field’ poetics which engages with landscape through experimentation with the spatiality of the poetic page.
Landscaping the page: British open field poetics and environmental aesthetics
Mandy Bloomfield *
Division of Performing Arts & English, University of
Bedfordshire , Bedford , UK
Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism, 2013 Vol. 17, No. 2, 121–136,
This essay examines recent British poetry informed by Concrete and ‘open-field’ poetics which engages with landscape through experimentation with the spatiality of the poetic page. Amounting to much more than just formal playfulness, this mode of ‘landscape writing’ raises pertinent questions about the politics and ethics of environmental aesthetics. In particular, it offers opportunities for investigating and complicating Timothy Morton’s critical formulation of ‘nature writing’ as ‘ecomimesis’. My argument draws on examples from the work of three poets whose writing eschews straightforwardly mimetic relations to landscape but nevertheless claims connections between the space of the page and material geographies. These poetries ambivalently participate in an attenuated form of ‘ecomimesis’ and in doing so, provide occasions for critical reflection on the ethical imperatives and problematics of this aesthetic impulse.
Keywords: environmental aesthetics; modernist poetics; ecomimesis; Ian Hamilton Finlay; Maggie O’Sullivan; Harriet Tarlo
Contemporary British poetry in the modernist tradition has been reshaping ‘landscape poetry’ for the past 30 years or more. This work tends to receive scant critical attention either within or beyond ecocritical circles, and yet it offers rich opportunities for exploring the ethical and political implications of environmental aesthetics. I join those such as Lynn Keller, Richard Kerridge, Nick Selby and Harriet Tarlo in claiming that, most especially on the level of form, contemporary poetry in a modernist vein has ‘specific equipment’ (Kerridge 2007, 133) for exploring some of the most pressing dilemmas of environmentally oriented thought and action. Thus, this article counters – and complements – a dominant ecocritical tendency to privilege issues of subject matter over questions of form. Kerridge (2007) has fruitfully focused on contemporary uses of collage techniques, whilst Tarlo (2009) has examined the ecological implications of poets’ recycling of source texts. My contribution focuses on recent poetry’s adaptation of another aesthetic legacy of modernism, passed down from Mallarmé and the Futurists, Pound and Williams, through post-war Concrete and ‘open-field’ poetics: the use of the page as a space. One might even say a place or a landscape.
This article considers poetry by Ian Hamilton Finlay, Harriet Tarlo and Maggie O’Sullivan written in the 1990s, contemporaneously with the rise of ecocriticism and a heightening of the ethical and political stakes of landscape writing in an age of global ecological crisis. Notable for the ways in which they bring the space of the page into complex relation with material geographies, these poets’ practices are informed by an involvement with the visual arts as well as by the legacies of Concrete and ‘open-field’ poetics. Their work represents an exceptionally powerful strand of engagement with the environmental implications of these aesthetic legacies and influences.
I want to contend that my examples’ foregrounding of the material space of the page in their engagements with landscape is much more than simply formal playfulness; this aesthetic strategy constitutes a formally embodied investigation of environmental aesthetics and ethics. In different ways, these open-field poetries claim a relation between the concrete space of the page and particular geographies. But this relation is complex; by drawing attention to their own artifice, these ‘landscapes’ repudiate any easy mimetic relation with a material geography ‘beyond’ the text. In doing so, they question the representational conventions of landscape writing. Of course, the very term ‘landscape’ is a complicated one. Emerging in the late sixteenth century to denote ‘a picture of scenery’ (OED), ‘landscape’ always already implies a mediated relation with the physical land. More recent usage, however, has somewhat eroded this emphasis on representation to posit a more direct relation with the land, as suggested by OED definitions such as ‘a view or prospect’ and ‘a tract of land with its distinguishing characteristics’. The term has been host, then, to a range of slippages between representation and material nature, as exemplified by Mitchell’s (2002, 5) remark that ‘[l]andscape is a natural scene mediated by culture. It is both a represented and a presented space, both a signifier and a signified, both a frame and what a frame contains, both a real place and its simulacrum’. This collapsing of representation and material reality is, perhaps, already a latent possibility of the mimetic aspirations of ‘landscape’ in its sixteenth century sense; ‘a picture of scenery’, in constituting itself as a likeness, aims for a sense of closeness with the material reality it depicts.
In the works I examine, however, the relation between open-field poem and material geography might be better described as analogical rather than directly mimetic. The strategy of foregrounding the material, sensory dimensions of the page brings into focus those dimensions of textuality which normally go unnoticed. The resulting shifts of attention have an orientational function, enacting an ethical acknowledgement of a parallel complexity of alterities present in material geographies.
This is work that clearly eschews the problematics of what Timothy Morton calls ‘strong ecomimesis’, which offers the text as a portal to an immersive experience of landscape. But in foregrounding the material dimensions of the page as an environment which invokes an ecological ethics, the work nevertheless participates in an attenuated form of ecomimesis. In particular, I will argue that this poetry formally embodies a tension between two contrary positions so prevalent in ecocritical debate. On the one hand, it exhibits a heightened awareness that notions of ‘nature’ and ‘landscape’ are not only culturally constructed but ethically problematic. Yet, at the same time, it articulates a romantic impulse towards an immediate encounter with ‘nature’ as alterity, even if this encounter is framed in terms of the materialities of the page. This is a dynamic that remains unresolved in the work I examine, and, I will suggest, productively so. I read these poetries not just as engagements with particular geographies, then, but as aesthetically embodied philosophical reflections on the very business of landscape writing itself.
The perils of ecomimesis
In particular, this work offers opportunities for exploring Morton’s notion of ‘ecomimesis’, one of the central concepts of his influential book Ecology Without Nature. ‘Ecomimesis’ designates ‘nature writing’ which ‘attempts to carve out a strong sense of place, a radical embeddedness in the landscape’ (Morton 2007, 132). Aiming for an experiential immediacy of place, a sense of immersion in ‘nature’, ecomimesis downplays its own presence as a textual construction, proclaiming ‘This environment is real; do not think that there is an aesthetic framework here’ (35). On the one hand, then, this aesthetic mode claims to collapse the distinction between the text and a felt immediacy of environment. And yet, ‘while it pretends to rub our noses in the natural world, ecomimesis is caught in the logic of reification’ (132). Its positing of a reality that is extra-textual, autonomously existing beyond or outside the text, sets up – or perpetuates – the idea of ‘nature’ as an object ‘over there’, existing separately from the subject writing or experiencing This is precisely the problem, Morton argues, with the very concept of ‘nature’ itself, which serves to distance us from the world we inhabit, and thus our responsibility for it. Says Morton, ‘[b]y setting up nature as an object “over there” – a pristine wilderness beyond all trace of human contact – [nature writing] re-establishes the very separation it seeks to abolish’ (125).
As we shall see, the works I examine problematise any easy mimetic relation between text and land, if only because they draw attention to their own presence as printed language, as material paper and ink. But in Morton’s eyes, no aesthetic mode of engagement with environment escapes the charge of ecomimesis: ‘avant-garde ecomimesis is cut from the same cloth as the kitsch variety, despite apparent differences’ (Morton 2007, 32). To substantiate this claim, he differentiates between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ forms of ecomimesis.
Strong ecomimesis offers the text as a ‘window on the world’, a transparent portal to an immersive, ‘authentic’ experience of a reality ‘out there’ beyond the text. ‘Weak ecomimesis’, however, ‘operates whenever writing evokes an environment’ (33), no matter how obliquely. Even an ‘ambient poetics’ whereby texts ‘encode the literal space of their inscription … the spaces between the words, the margin of the page’ (3) performs this form of ecomimesis.
However, Morton’s claim (2007, 21) that different modes of ecomimesis are ‘all the same’ is surely over-reductive. This homogenising move goes against the grain of his broader critical privileging of notions of collectivism over holism, for example. It also risks eclipsing the value of what he briefly refers to as ‘critical ecomimesis’, an aesthetic mode which is reflective about the very conventions within which it necessarily operates. As examples of such ‘critical ecomimesis’, the poetry I examine productively investigates some of the contradictions of the ecomimetic mode. Although I think that works like these have much to contribute to ecocritical discussions, I don’t want to claim that they necessarily constitute a ‘good’ reflective form of ecomimesis, as opposed to a ‘bad’ naive ecomimesis. Rather, like Lynn Keller (2012, 582), I am convinced of the value of a ‘literary and imaginative equivalent of biodiversity: different contributions will come from a variety of generic, formal, structural, rhetorical, and thematic approaches, many of them deliberately resisting inherited conventions’. To think of ecomimesis in such terms might enable this concept to function as a trope for dialogue between different aesthetic modes and their ethical implications, rather than as a simultaneously dualistic and homogenised category.
Ian Hamilton Finlay’s modern nature
Ian Hamilton Finlay’s large and varied oeuvre – comprising poems, prints, and (often collaborative) sculptural works in glass, stone, wood, metal and the material surfaces of the land itself – recurrently investigates aesthetic relations to the nature in modernity. His own characterisation of his earliest writings as ‘little “descriptions” of “nature”’ (Finlay 2012, 19), reveals an intriguing wariness towards both the mode of ‘description’ and the very category ‘nature’. Finlay’s participation in the international Concrete poetry scene of the 1960s significantly changed the aesthetic terms of his engagement with ‘nature’ and landscape. Suggesting spatial modes of organising materials which offered alternatives to ‘description’, Concrete poetry represented for Finlay ‘a new relation to syntax (normal syntax equals straight line which, continued not nearly so far as infinity, gets lost in social wastes …)’ (qtd. in Finlay 2012, 29).
As the title of its most famous manifesto by Eugen Gomringer (1970 ) indicates, Concrete poetry performed a formal and conceptual shift ‘From Line to Constellation’. Drawing on Mallarmé’s typographic example of the constellation in his ground-breaking Un Coup de Dés (and his use of this very term in the poem), Gomringer’s central tenets for the new poetics seized on the spatial and relational suggestiveness of this term. The constellation, writes Gomringer ( 1970, 67), ‘encloses a group of words as if it were drawing stars together to form a cluster’. Concretising a set of possible (and often multiple) relations, the poem becomes ‘a playarea of fixed dimensions’ ‘ordered by the poet’, but participated in by the reader, who ‘grasps the idea of play, and joins in’ (67). All this emphasis on play might well suggest inconsequential whimsy; however, Gomringer’s constellation poetics also has a serious aesthetic point to make: ‘[i]n the constellation something is brought into the world. It is a reality in itself and not a poem about something or other’ (67). This amounts to a claim for the poem’s ontological, rather than just mimetic, status, a claim that, as we shall see, Finlay’s work often literalises. Furthermore, the poem that moves away from being about to being ‘a reality in itself’ isn’t necessarily hermetically sealed and self-referring. In becoming ‘something […] brought into the world’, the work enters into relation with that ‘world’. Rejecting straightforward mimesis and realist description, the constellation poem is, instead, a materialisation of a set of phenomenological and semantic relations. The poem itself becomes constitutive of a field, or, for Finlay, a landscape.
Where in Gomringer’s rendering the notion of constellation implies a somewhat mobile (playful) set of relations, Finlay’s constellations more commonly embody a series of rather fraught tensions bound up with the aesthetic conventions of landscape. His exploration of these tensions perhaps receives its most extensive and literal treatment in his garden at Little Sparta, near Edinburgh in the Pentland Hills, where he lived and worked until his death in 2006. This large collection of sculpture-poems and landscape works does not just ecomimetically convey a sense of ‘radical embeddedness in the landscape’ (Morton 2007, 132), but is physically embedded in the specificities of a material geography. Among the many examples of such an entanglement of poem and environment at Little Sparta is a vertical slate slab positioned on the edge of an elevated copse and carved with three different arrangements of the words ‘SONG’, ‘WIND’ and ‘WOOD’ (Figure 1). The poet’s son Alec Finlay remarks that ‘[t]he poem belongs here because this is where the poet first heard the wind’ (Finlay 2012, 1). The work can thus be read as a commemoration of a (lost) moment of romantically inflected encounter between the poet and elemental nature in all its immediacy. And yet this poem is also much more complicated and more canny than that. As the different permutations of its three words suggest, the poem consists of a shifting constellation of various elements present in the here of the work, comprising not only the semantic and material components of the engraved slab, but also its surroundings. The poem indicates how ‘song’ emerges only through the encounter between different entities; it is only when wind meets an object, such as tree branches in a wood, that it makes a sound. As Wallace Stevens ( 1990, 271) puts it, ‘The wind had seized the tree and ha, and ha’. What Stevens’s ‘ha’s indicate, furthermore, is the non-linguistic nature of the wood-wind ‘song’. As this song cannot be adequately captured in language, Finlay’s words carved on slate don’t function mimetically to represent an external reality. Instead, they indexically orient attention to that
Figure 1. Ian Hamilton Finlay’s ‘Wood-wind Song’. Photo by Mandy Bloomfield printed with
kind permission of Wild Hawthorn Press/Little Sparta Trust.
which normally functions as ‘background’ or ‘setting’. This aesthetic move is thus also an ethical move which brings to attention precisely those hitherto ignored, marginalised, distanced, reified dimensions of the world which have constituted ‘nature’.
According to Morton (2007, 38), such a blurring of distinctions between background and foreground is a characteristic feature of the ‘ambient poetics’ of ecomimesis. Although Finlay’s work seemingly could not be further from the strong ecomimesis of realist ‘nature writing’, it invokes the ecomimetic pursuit of immediacy by collapsing the distinction between work and setting, foreground and background, even as it relies on these very distinctions (and therefore implicitly reinstates them) to perform its evocation of an encounter with nature’s ‘song’.
However, Finlay’s work also displays a high degree of awareness about the ways in which any experience of nature is mediated by the historically shaped distancing mechanisms that make ecomimesis so problematic. It is not nature ‘as such’ that is foregrounded in this work, but rather our relations with it. His work recurrently stresses that we can’t access nature beyond or outside of the forms of its domination in the history of modernity, and it often does so by juxtaposing pastoral imagery with images of modern forms of violence. Not far from the ‘Wood-wind Song’ poem at Little Sparta are birdtables in the shape of aircraft carriers and a carved stone sculpture in the shape of a neo-classically stylised beehive bearing inscriptions referring to the 1942 Battle of Midway and surrounded by bees buzzing to and from adjacent plantings of white Astilbe. Simultaneously witty and disturbing, such works make it impossible to encounter ‘wildlife’ without coming into contact with modernity’s most iconic forms of violent domination. Moreover, every aspect of the garden itself – its shaped slabs of slate, inscribed blocks of stone, cast concrete, carved wood, artificial ponds, channelled streams, contoured lawns, walls, fences and plantings – knowingly participates in analogous forms of domination.
Reversing Morton’s formulation of strong ecomimesis, we might interpret the garden as proclaiming ‘[t]his aesthetic framework is here; do not think that this environment is “authentic.” ’ And yet at the same time, an elegiac yearning for a lost relation with nature infuses this landscape-poem at every level. As John Dixon Hunt (2008, 78) observes, Little Sparta reminds us time and again that landscape is a ‘contested domain’. One of the contests played out on this terrain is a struggle between a romantic desire for an authentic encounter with nature, and acute awareness of the modern processes of physical and imaginative landscaping which preclude such a possibility.
This ‘contested domain’ stretches beyond the boundaries of Little Sparta and into Finlay’s paper-based works, produced as prints, cards, booklets and postcards at his own Wild Hawthorn Press. Just as Finlay’s ‘avant-gardening’ scapes the land, so his print works treat the page as landscape. Nowhere is this truer, or more ecologically explicit, than in the late work Estuary (1997) (Figure 2). Because of its overt foregrounding of ecological crisis (rather untypical for Finlay), this poem has featured in recent ecopoetry anthologies, namely Alice Oswald’s The Thunder Mutters: 101 Poems for the Planet and Neil Astley’s Earth Shattering: Ecopoems. Originally produced as a folding card, Estuary is a grid poem comprising five names of grasses, five names of wetland birds and five names of multinational oil companies, enfolded in a square card of a toxic orange hue which bears the aphorism ‘The tanker is part of the wildness too’. Very clearly eschewing any notion of nature as a pristine wilderness, Estuary extends Finlay’s concern with modernity’s violent domination of nature, only here the oil tanker replaces the aircraft carrier, and the names of multinational oil companies supersede those of bombers and warships. In place of the obvious violence of war is an insidious violence of big business and resource extraction. If, as Drew Milne (2001, para 15) has remarked, Finlay’s work is normally ‘conspicuously reticent about the social and economic structures of modern society’, this late poem shrugs off that reticence.
Estuary’s physical juxtaposition of names of native North Atlantic grasses and birds with multinational oil companies points to a tension between local ecologies and the forces of global capital. Finlay’s tactic of juxtaposition achieves this above all by signifying the potentials of pollution, invoking familiar images of oil-covered birds and despoiled wetlands. The poem participates in what Lawrence Buell (1998, 657) calls ‘toxic discourse’:
Figure 2. Ian Hamilton Finlay, Estuary. Reprinted with kind permission of Wild Hawthorn Press.
However one might wish otherwise, the modern nature that toxic discourse recognizes […] is not a holistic spiritual or biotic economy but a network or networks within which, on the one hand, humans are biotically imbricated (like it or not) and, on the other hand, nature figures as modified (like it or not) by techne.
Finlay’s ambivalent mapping of this ‘like it or not’ interconnectedness both acknowledges techne as part of the ‘wildness’ of ‘modern nature’, and at the same time mobilises a sense of pastoral betrayal. This is particularly apparent in the mesh of relations brought into focus via the single world ‘SHELL’, emphatically positioned as the poem’s ‘last word’. Transformed in this context from a term associated with the natural world to one that symbolises toxic contamination, the word also reminds us of the provenance of oil in marine organisms. Furthermore, when the poem was produced in 1997, the name of Shell held an extra charge because of the recent bloody dispute between the Ogoni people and the oil giant in the Niger delta, which led to the widelyreported execution of Ken Saro Wiwa in 1995. The presence of Shell’s name here, in the landscape of Finlay’s Estuary, puts his (presumably Scottish) landscape’s ecology into dialogue with wider global geographies of uneven development and social and environmental injustice.
In its constellation form, then, Estuary embodies the interconnectedness of ‘modern nature’ and gestures towards its implications. But the poem aims not just to cognitively map these connections but also to render them affectively palpable. Through the largetype, capitalised and emboldened print of the word grid and the eye-stinging orange of its enclosing card, the poem induces a sense of felt proximity, not to a natural world beyond the poem, but to the materialities of the page and to dimensions of language which normally go unacknowledged. As in the ‘Wood-wind Song’ poem, Estuary’s ambient poetics foregrounds that which is usually background. But the poem’s emphasis on its own physicality also signals its own material entanglement in ‘modern nature’. By dwelling on the material level of the poem, we might recall that ink – the ink in which the poem’s thick black words are printed, and the ink that provides the dye for its bright orange cover – is petroleum based. There is thus a very material connection between the physical poem and the landscape it engages. Like the landscapes of Little Sparta, Estuary is a contested terrain whose own forms are quite consciously implicated in odernity’s domination of nature.
If Finlay’s work participates in an ecomimetic ambient poetics, then the forms of felt proximity evoked in this work hardly correspond to a sense of rhapsodic immersion in an idealised nature. Indeed, Finlay’s often highly uncomfortable forms of ambience embody a fraught tension between a desire for an immersive experience in an (always already lost) unspoiled environment and an acute awareness of problematic mechanisms of objectification and distancing which mediate all our relations with nature. This work suggests that even the most attenuated forms of ecomimesis are stuck with aesthetic and cultural structures which are implicated in modernity’s reification and despoliation of a natural world now forever lost to us. Finlay’s is a poetic of impasse. But this is not to say impassive.
Opening the page-as-field
If Finlay’s environmental aesthetics embodies a poetics of impasse, the work of Harriet Tarlo and Maggie O’Sullivan suggests a somewhat more dynamic engagement with the dilemmas of landscape writing. Finlay’s work represents one precedent for subsequent generations of British poets working with the twin legacies of modernism and romantic pastoralism. But American poetics, and the work of those such as Lorine Niedecker, Robert Duncan and, above all, Charles Olson, have been equally influential. For poets interested in the potentials of the space of the page for landscape writing, Olson’s articulation of ‘open-field’ poetics has particular resonance and, I want to suggest, contributes much to the dynamic poetics of Tarlo and O’Sullivan.
From the outset of his infamous ‘Projective Verse’ essay, Olson (1966, 15) connects his project of rethinking poetic form with possibilities for a new ‘stance toward reality’. As against the ‘closed’ forms of traditional rhyme and metre, he frames his proposed mode of composition in terms of a radical openness, conceptualised in highly physical and spatial terms. Olson (1966, 20) reimagines the poem as an arrangement of ‘OBJECTS’ which comprise ‘the large area of the whole poem […] the FIELD, if you like, where all the syllables and all the lines must be managed in their relations to each other’. This notion of the ‘field’ draws on the poet’s interest in contemporary scientific developments, especially in physics, and he represents the poem not just as a spatialised arrangement of objects, but as a dynamic configuration of forces and energies. Peter Middleton (2009) has compellingly argued that shifting scientific paradigms powerfully informed the New American poetics to the extent that Olson and his generation imagined science and poetry as parallel forms of enquiry.1 Borrowing from scientific texts in poetically conducted investigations, ‘[p]oets would flypost the walls of poetry, moving from Cybernetics to particle physics, then recombinant DNA cloning and the autogenetic neologising of molecular biology’ (Middleton 2009, 949). Such strategies are not only evident in the New American poetry, but in key statements of poetics such as Olson’s ‘Projective Verse’. Through a scientifically laden vocabulary of ‘kinetics’, ‘energy-discharge’ (16) and ‘particles’ (17), Olson’s essay implicitly grounds the act of poetic composition in new understandings of the physical world proposed by quantum mechanics and field theory. Although not explicitly tied to geographic space in ‘Projective Verse’, Olson’s composition by field does constitute a mode of negotiation with material geography in The Maximus Poems, begun in the same year.
This highly relational poetics of the open field proposes a move away from ‘subjectivism’ towards a notion of ‘objectism’:
Objectism is the getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the ‘subject’ and his soul, that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature […] and those other creations of nature which we may, with no derogation, call objects. For a man is himself an object, […] the more likely to recognize himself as such the greater his advantages, particularly at that moment that he achieves an humilitas sufficient to make him of use. (Olson 1966, 24–25)
Olson’s ‘objectism’ emphasises the corporeality of human being, invoking a physicality that positions ‘man’ ‘as a creature of nature’. It is perhaps above all this insistence on the body, and its dynamic relations with other bodies, which distinguishes Olson’s open field from the rather drier ‘constellations’ of the Concrete mode. Composition by field, by extension, entails a ‘stance toward reality’ that radically unsettles the subject’s distanciation from ‘nature’ and places the human in an ecological relation, as an object among other objects.
Through this position of ‘humilitas’, open-field poetics implies an ethical attitude towards the alterities that comprise ‘nature’. This ‘stance toward reality’ entails a rejection of direct mimesis. As Joshua Corey (2009, 119) puts it in an excellent recent article on the ‘avant-pastoral’, Olson’s open-field mode aims ‘to break up to break up a false, naively mimetic organicism in favour of a performative non-organicism that is more true to human existence as a node in “the larger force” of nature’. Open-field poetics, in other words, performs a critique of the organicism by which ecomimesis claims to deliver a sense of immersion in nature even as it aesthetically perpetuates an act of distancing. Instead, the open field’s mode of high artifice performs a set of relations which function as an analogy for human embeddedness within a complexity of interrelations with ‘those other creatures of nature’, or what Morton (2010, 28–31) neatly refers to as the ‘mesh’.
The open-field poem, as Nick Selby (2010, 9) points out, ‘engages in the world, is part and parcel of it and its energies rather than a textual system that points away from it’. Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, in what Corey terms as its ‘non-organicism’, the open field claims an emphatic embeddedness in nature, where nature is itself understood in somewhat non-organic terms. This of course doesn’t necessarily mean a transcendence of the problematics of ecomimesis.
Harriet Tarlo: radical landscapes of the open field
Tarlo’s work adopts, but also adapts, Olsonian open-field poetics in ways that bring the space of the page into close relation with environmental aesthetics and ethics. As part of a generation that came of age amid discourses of global warming and threatened biodiversity, Tarlo has a sharpened sense of the political implications of landscape writing. Involved in the developments of ecocriticism since its early days as an emergent field in Britain in the 90s, her work as a poet and as a critic has been pivotal in putting ecocritical debates into dialogue with innovative poetry, most especially through her development of the notion of ‘radical landscape poetry’, a term which describes her own poetry and that of others who combine a focus on landscape with experimental poetics.
Her poetry, echoing the apparent anti-mimeticism of Olsonian open-field poetics, engages intimately with the specificities of particular sites ‘not in an attempt to represent them, but to embody the sound and rhythm of human relationship with the outside’ (Tarlo 2004, backmatter). Emphasising the potential of open-field poetics for suggesting a relation between the physical dimensions of the landscaped page and the land itself, she says:
the open form page-space is closer to an open field or a moorland or a hillside than closed forms of poetry. It is also more open to the reflection, or even embodiment, of the vast, complex, inter-related network of vegetation, insect and animal life that we call ecology and to intelligent reflection upon it’ (Tarlo 2007b, para 22)
This distinctly Olsonian emphasis on an embodiment of relations, rather than a representation of an ‘outside’, or externalised ‘nature’, suggests a process by which the poem physically materialises a sense of ecological interrelatedness. It has to be noted, though, that Tarlo is much more explicit than Olson about the specifically spatial and ecological implications of the open field, drawing out and developing aspects of his poetics which are present, but not so emphatic, in his poetics. So too, emphasis on the open field’s openness has slightly different resonances. Tarlo’s notion of openness suggests both a receptivity to otherness and a sense of open-ended process which draws upon more indeterminate, labile and processual models of language than Olson had access to, resonating with prominent debates about the ‘open text’ conducted by the Language writers in the 1980s.
For all her indebtedness to discussions of the open field and open text, Tarlo’s aesthetic models are not only poetic. Her current collaborations with artist Judith Tucker and recent project with photographer Jem Southam (see Southam 2008) demonstrate a powerful interest in and engagement with representations of landscape in the visual arts. This influence is also evident within the textual field of the work I wish to use as an exemplar of Tarlo’s open-field poetics, the one-page poem blue blue blue, from Poems 1990–2003 (see Figure 3). The poem’s dedication (for Julia) pays homage to Julia
Figure 3. Harriet Tarlo, ‘blue blue blue’. Reprinted with kind permission of Tarlo and Shearsman books.
Ball, a painter with whom Tarlo has had long-running conversations. Ball’s works feature on the front covers of Poems 1990–2003 and The Ground Aslant. What Tarlo most admires about Ball’s painting is that it ‘exists in various degrees of abstraction but retains the elemental, the link with ground or sky’ (Tarlo, e-mail message to the author, 10 December 2012). The suggestion here is that the painterly canvas can be abstract at the same time as evoking a landscape, because the materiality of paint so powerfully connects to the ‘elemental’ dimensions of ground, sky, space and light. What Tarlo values here, and what her own poetry strains for in a work such as blue blue blue, is a dimension of affective immediacy that corresponds to the materialities of the land itself. Whilst this aesthetic move eschews the naive ecomimetic fallacy of immersion in nature, it nevertheless constitutes a transformed romantically-inflected impulse to achieve a sense of nearness to nature’s inassimilable alterities, even if this encounter is framed in terms of the sensory spatiality of the printed page. As she puts it, ‘the open form page-space is closer to an open field or a moorland or a hillside’.
The field of single or clustered words scattered over the page in blue blue blue constitutes the poem as a landscape in and of itself, a textual object ‘Equal, That Is, to the Real Itself’ (Olson 1966, 46). One of the most noteworthy and complex objects in this textual field is the lyric subject, through which the poem’s Olsonian ‘objectism’ explores the possibilities of an attitude of ‘humilitas’. Unlike Finlay, whose work largely eschews the lyric ‘I’ altogether, Tarlo is interested in reworking it. Indeed, it is at least partly through this reworking that she engages the problematics of pastoral with which she knows her work to be entangled. In one of her many critical reflections on ‘radical landscape poetry’, Tarlo (2007b, para 13) points to a ‘fruitful tension’ in this work between ‘the lure to pastoral’ and a resistance to ‘the nexus of romanticism, sentimentality, nostalgia and the dualistic divide between rural and urban, cultivated and wild, natural and technological all of which characterise the traditional pastoral’. Tarlo’s own work ambivalently negotiates this tension partly through its mobilisation of a precariouslypositioned lyric ‘I’.
In blue blue blue, the cluster ‘seeing in/I am not/eye, but’ simultaneously places the lyric ‘I’ as a viewing subject, ‘seeing in’, at the same time as emphatically stating that ‘I am not/eye, but/rock/air/light’. This ‘I’ is positioned in quite physical ways within the poem as a hinge between a romantic tradition in which an optically privileged lyric subject ‘floats on high o’er Vales and Hills’ (Wordsworth  2004, 164), and a negation of the elevated ‘I’-as-eye in which it becomes equivalent to other physical entities of ‘nature’ such as ‘rock/air/light’, in a position of Olsonian ‘humilitas’. That these particular ‘objects’ can function as verbs as well as nouns also unsettles their object status. The relationship between the poetic persona and nature which has been such a persistent feature of landscape poetry is rearticulated here in ways which both acknowledge the tenacity of past imaginings and challenge them.
Tarlo’s renegotiation of the lyric ‘I’ functions as a critical reflection on the ways in which ecomimesis simultaneously participates in a fantasy of immersion in nature, even as its reifying mode reproduces notions of nature as something at a distance, necessarily separate from the subject. Whilst gesturing towards this paradoxical positioning, Tarlo’s lyric ‘I’ is also somewhat differently situated as an entity involved in a complex and dynamic relation with the landscape of the page. The visually and syntactically open form of this poem situates the ‘I’ as just one node in a set of emphatically mobile relations. Verbs such as ‘moving’, ‘falling’, ‘throwing’ and ‘circling’ semantically and syntactically keep this landscape in motion. But this is a space whose shifting interactions are also performed via physical juxtaposition and visual arrangement. For example, horizontal and vertical alignments in the following lines create something like a ‘flow diagram’ of the water cycle:
cloud rain held
Such hydrologic processes are also brought into relation with other elements: ‘falling/water’, for example, is implicated in ‘breaking/shell’. In a further negotiation of such watery relationships, the poem performs a radical scalar shift from such local intricacies to the planetary forces which link ‘waves’ ‘to moon’.
The visual layout of this text is crucial to its rendering of such dynamic ecological interactions and concatenations of scale. Its open field page layout invites a process of reading as ‘field-work’, as Lyn Hejinian (2000, 43) calls it. As this prominent theorist and practitioner of Language writing remarks, ‘[a]ny reading of these works is an improvisation; one moves through the work not in straight lines but in curves, swirls, and across intersections, to words that catch the eye or attract attention repeatedly’ (2000, 43). Reading becomes a spatial practice whose parameters are elastic and expansive; ‘[t]he implication (correct) is that the words and the ideas (thoughts, perceptions, etc. – the materials) continue beyond the work. One has simply stopped because one has run out of units or minutes, and not because a conclusion has been reached nor “everything” said’ (47). In a poem such as Tarlo’s, such a reading practice might be seen as an analogy for ecological processes which are open-ended and contingent, and whose totality of relations is irreducible to the semantic capture of neat conclusions or the notion of ‘everything said’. In this way, the poem materially and semantically keeps its relational field in a state of dynamic play, animating not only reading and meaning but also the tensions between immediacy and distanciation, textuality and ‘nature’ that characterise ecomimesis. Tarlo’s ambient poetics, then, posits a highly mobile and contingent sense of environment.
Maggie O’Sullivan’s visceral landscaping
In different ways, O’Sullivan’s work also proposes a dynamic sense of interaction between material geographies, their ecological processes and the materialities of the poetic page. As in Finlay’s and Tarlo’s work, the relationship between poem and land is never straightforwardly mimetic. In an interview with Scott Thurston, O’Sullivan (2011, 249) describes her poetic practice as ‘working with the page’s reality, the spacial [sic] reality of the page and the sonic terrain of the language or languages’. She imagines language as a landscape in and of itself, engaged in a process of ‘becoming itself, or more than itself…
Not mimicking or emulating’ (O’Sullivan and Thurston 2011, 247). This strident antimimeticism, along with an emphasis on radical openness and the corporeal dimensions of language, resonates with an Olsonian open-field poetics. O’Sullivan has been more avowedly influenced by Olson’s contemporary Robert Duncan than by Olson himself; her poetics finds affinities with Duncan’s openly romantic sensibility, his interest in the occult and his sense of the open field as a field of poetic derivation and spiritual as well as physical energy. But her work has also assimilated elements of Olsonian open-field and Concrete poetics through her participation in the 1970s and 80s in British Poetry Revival circles much influenced by these developments. Furthermore, her poetics, like Finlay’s and Tarlo’s, has also been shaped by visual arts practices.
O’Sullivan’s own visual arts practice, along with her engagement with the work of other artists, among them her life partner the painter Antony Cook, and figures such as Eva Hesse and Doris Salcedo, has undoubtedly affected her approach to language. Perhaps the most important figure here, though, is the performance and installation artist Joseph Beuys. O’Sullivan’s narrative of her own poetic career relates how the ‘transformative’ experience of working as the researcher for a BBC documentary (Tisdall 1987) on him in the late 1980s occasioned a geographical move from London to Yorkshire. The BBC documentary made much of Beuys’s interests in ecological relations, and his involvement in the German Green Party. It was partly these aspects of his world view that galvanised O’Sullivan. ‘I stepped out,’ she says, ‘away from the city to the moorland impress of tongue’ (O’Sullivan 2003, 67). This notion of ‘impress’ suggests a physicality of language – and its relations with place – that is at least partly attributed here to O’Sullivan’s engagement with Beuys. Her collection In the House of the Shaman, titled after one of Beuys’s drawings, quotes him in one of its epigraphs: ‘To stress the idea of transformation and of substance. This is precisely what the shaman does in order to bring about change and development: his nature is therapeutic’ (O’Sullivan 1993, 28). Whilst expressing a wariness of shamanism’s ‘new age’ (O’Sullivan and Thurston 2011, 247) associations, one of the things that she draws from Beuys’s emphasis on transformation and substance is an insistence on a connection between the physicality of ‘the word made flesh’ and the dynamic, transformative, even ‘therapeutic’ potential of language. As Charles Bernstein (2011, 7) puts it, ‘O’Sullivan’s is less an embodied poetics than a visceral gesture […]: not an idea of the body made concrete but a seismographic incarnation of language as organ-response to the minute, shifting interactive sum of place as tectonic’. Such a ‘visceral’ poetics posits the language-landscape as a living, changing corporeal field.
My example of O’Sullivan’s visceral poetics, that bread should be (1997), brings the material space of the page into relation with a specific geography and its complexly intertwined forms of ecological corporeality. The poem’s title references ‘the oft repeated phrase during the Great Irish Famine of 1845–1852’, ‘that bread should be so dear and human flesh so cheap’ (O’Sullivan 1997, 23). Its investigation of the famine’s devastating effects on the area of Skibbereen, home to half of O’Sullivan’s ancestors, constitutes not so much an elegiac lament as a critique of the ecological regimes of colonial Ireland. The Irish famine was born out of a colonial system which produced enormous social and economic inequality between British landlords and Irish tenants combined with dependency on the monoculture of the potato – itself a legacy of wider colonial ventures. For O’Sullivan, this social structure and its ecological regime is symptomatic of modernity’s broader impulse towards the formation of hegemonic monocultures – manifested in cultural, linguistic and ecological terms.
Her poem’s critique of this modern nature makes links between a damaged environment, an all-pervasive sense of violence, and an impaired vocal capacity, as in the poem’s first line: ‘low ground long black crêpe rolled in the mouth’s threshing’. Throughout, as I have argued elsewhere (Bloomfield 2009), this poem’s printed and sounded forms register the narrowing impulses of colonial hegemonic logic. In the line ‘round round as an 0’s hoop scouring vowels – ’ the ‘O’ appears winnowed away to the visibly narrower shape of a zero, intimating processes of impoverishment and negation which infer interrelations between the restriction of ecological, cultural and linguistic diversity. After all, the English in which O’Sullivan writes is itself a legacy of its colonial imposition in Ireland.
Figure 4. Maggie O’Sullivan, p.36 from that bread should be. Reprinted with kind permission of O’Sullivan and etruscan books.
Throughout, the poem forges a close relation between language and land through a page layout comprising a consistently bottom-heavy arrangement, with the top lines aligned across the opening to form a ‘horizon’. In the example shown as Figure 4, the poetic page simultaneously conducts an excavation of landscape, language and the corporeal speaking subject. Imagined here as a fenced-off area of land – ‘the lot of long silent letters/’, language is subjected to a process of ‘searching’ and dismembering which yields at the bottom of the page ‘the narrative i SINGING’. However, that this speaking subject is ‘laid bare’ by a process of excavation; that it is ‘SEVERED’; that its ‘narrative’ is (at best) fragmented; that it is represented by a lower-case ‘i’ and that its ‘SINGING’ becomes, over the page, ‘its W I R E nettle/in the mouth’ (O’Sullivan 1997, 37) makes its position in the landscape highly precarious.
However, even as the poem’s lyric persona insistently foregrounds a limited sense of articulacy, the poem’s own language also resists this restrictiveness by bringing extralinguistic dimensions into its act of articulation, expanding its field of signifying energies. Textual resources such as capitalisation and diacritical marks perform gesturally to intimate dimensions of this environment and its processes which are unassimilable to language. In this poetic landscape, language becomes ‘more than itself’ in a process of dynamic transformation and expansion.
That bread should be responds to modernity’s damaging socio-ecological monocultures, then, with a language which cultivates a radical openness to diversity and malleability through material gestures that take poetic language far beyond the narrowly linguistic and semantic. O’Sullivan has often claimed that her poetry seeks to give poetic presence to silenced voices and entities, to vast multiplicities of marginalised alterities. This is what is at stake in her material reshaping of language through highly visual uses of page layout, diacritical marks and the materiality of words themselves. For example, the disaggregation and visual rearrangement of the word ‘SEVERED’ turns the word into a visual gesture which leads us across space, and at the same time emphasises the word’s anagrammatic possibilities, increasing its semantic potential. That ‘RED’, for instance, is part of ‘SEVERED’ heightens this term’s visceral connotations, and its material and semantic connection to the dismembering activity of ‘peeling it off the rended spine’. Such material interventions open language up to a diversity of alterities.
Through such means, O’Sullivan’s poem embodies a sense of a language-landscape composed as a living, changing body. Not only is this a landscape layered with the accretions of a violent history of economic exploitation and social and environmental injustice, but it is also depicted as capable of transformation. In sharp contrast to the atemporal stasis of traditional pastoral, this is a landscape in constant flux, shaped and reshaped by the forces of capitalist modernity. This poetic articulation of a quite strongly constructionist attitude coexists, however, with a Beuysian insistence on affective ‘organresponse’ (Bernstein 2011, 7) which brings O’Sullivan closer to romantic and even mystical modes of engaging with the material world. Such contradictory impulses coexist in O’Sullivan’s poetry as an animating force.
As Morton (2007, 142) points out, ‘if we find no resting place in ambience […] then ambience has helped to liberate radical thinking’. Most especially through their investigation of relations between the material page and the evocation of environment, the poetries of O’Sullivan, Tarlo and Finlay constitute reflections on the processes of writing the landscape that throw into sharp relief the contradictions of ecomimesis and demonstrate a diverse array of negotiations with these tensions. In their different ways, they reflect upon and unsettle the conventions of landscape writing, even as they participate in some of its paradoxical impulses. Rather than claiming to transcend the ecomimetic mire, this poetry stirs it up.
- Middleton conducts a more detailed analysis of Olson’s engagement with the sciences in his (forthcoming) chapter ‘Discoverable Unknowns: Charles Olson’s Lifelong Preoccupation with the Sciences’ in Contemporary Olson, edited by David Herd (Manchester: Manchester University Press). He is also developing this line of enquiry further in a book-length study of American poetry and science in the Cold War.
Notes on contributor
Mandy Bloomfield is a Lecturer in English at the University of Bedfordshire. She has published articles on contemporary modernist poetry in journals such as Textual Practice and The Journal of British and Irish Linguistically Innovative Poetry. She is in the final stages of completing a monograph, Archaeologies of the Material Page, to be published with the University of Alabama Press. Her current research investigates recent poetry’s articulation of shifting senses of place.
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