An ecopoem is urgent, it aims to unsettle…
Photograph by Faisal Akram
A familiar argument against didactic poetry is that it preaches to the choir. A poem should not preach, but it may teach the choir a new tune, the chorus a new step. Of course, there will always be self-indulgent didactic poetry; a poem won’t save the rhinos by telling us to. But I don’t believe poetry that changes us, moves, unsettles, motivates us, or awakens us to the pleasures and wonders of the natural world is by definition bad.
How might poetry be good and environmentalist? Here are a few instances from the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries. Frost wittily broached didacticism in “The Oven Bird.” The song of the bird (whose domelike ground nest is shaped like a dutch oven) is commonly translatedpreacher, preacher or teacher, teacher. Frost plants thoughts and words into his didactic bird’s beak and brain. Here is his sonnet’s discordant sestet:
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
Wagon dust? Maybe, but I think he had the automobile in mind. The first triumph of fossil-fueled industry, Ford’s Model T, began raising dust throughout the U.S. in 1908; it wasn’t until 1913 that most highways were paved. Frost wrote “The Oven Bird” the following year in England. The poem is not overtly didactic. Frost doesn’t tell us what to think; but he knows better than to celebrate and sing the Model T.