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Harriet Tarlo

Radical Landscapes:

experiment and environment

in contemporary poetry

paragraph 1

away               easy

into the street
pint after pint after pint

                                       or oranges

impeding infirmities

until there’s enough room
for us all

                                       fresh to squeeze and cut

tape measure falling from her skirt

catching the quick way out

                               certain areas on the east coast
                               are not worth saving
                               let the sea come in

sweeping earth up
feeding it back
to the next one
shaking dead roots
free never throwing
away when the sack
breeds old hair and
blood back any
                                                orthopaedic beds / orange
                                                juice / personal loans/dead

      (Harriet Tarlo, Poems 1990-2003, Shearsman 2004)[1]


In the practice-as-research paper I gave at the Pressure to Experiment conference in Southampton, I was concerned to contextualise my writing and research by considering how creative and critical preoccupations develop in tandem. Over a period of several years, the poetry I was writing, my environmental concerns and engagement with landscape and my endless fascination with Linguistically Innovative Poetry fused into an ever-growing and long-running piece of research on experimentalism and environmentalism in poetry. I did not have time to offer detailed readings of individual poets in this paper, choosing instead to throw into the ring for debate some theories on why Linguistically Innovative Poetry proves to be a particularly fruitful area of research for someone exploring the connections between place and landscape with ecology and environmental thought, even action. In this slightly longer piece, I offer a few glancing references to poetic texts which will substantiate my argument and may whet the reader’s appetite for reading more of this work.


The project I have been working on has two obvious outlets, the eco-critical community and the experimental poetry community, both of which I have found to be partially welcoming and partially resistant to the connections I am exploring. The conference itself confirmed this as my paper produced some fierce, though useful, debate. It is not perhaps surprising then that a search of the wider critical, academic sphere reveals a paucity of critical connections between the ecological or eco-critical world and literary criticism relating to postmodern or LIP poetry. Evidently there is ambivalence abroad in the critical, if not the poetic, community.


Eco-criticism has long displayed a general resistance to post-structuralism and all its relatives. Canonical figures within the eco-critical movement, such as Lawrence Buell, have guided the movement towards realist and non-fiction texts as the most appropriate and ‘ecologically correct’ literature to study.[2] Thus it is that very few eco-critics engage with innovative or experimental writing, though one or two poet-critics and scholars, particularly in the United States (where the experimental poetry tradition has a higher value in the academy than its British counterpart) are interested in the subject. Jed Rasula’s This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry is a notable example, the first book to consider ‘the Black Mountain lineage’ in terms of its ‘stance towards the living planet’.[3] Jonathan Skinner has even set up ecopoetics, a journal ‘dedicated to exploring creative-critical edges between making (with an emphasis on writing) and ecology (the theory and praxis of deliberate earthlings)’.[4] The times they are a-changing then, and, though there is precious little critical attention given to experimental poetry per se in the U.K., even here we find one or two lone voices (apart from my own) writing on environmental and innovative poetry, Nick Selby and Matthew Jarvis being notable.[5] Fortunately ASLE U.S. and U.K. (Association for the Study of Literature and Environment) are open-minded organisations are have offered conference and journal space to some of this work.

paragraph 5

From where though does the eco-critical suspicion of the avant-garde stem? As one of the American scholars interested in this field, George Hart, has noted, ecocritics have been concerned about the displacement of nature ‘as a referent and a subject’ in writing which emphasizes ‘textuality, verbal surface, and wordplay’.[6] True, postmodern writers and post-structuralist critics have persisted in drawing our attention to the gap between language and, (by extension, literature) and the world. Perhaps it is also true that, within the critical world of postmodern or linguistically innovative writing, there is a need to get beyond the obsession with linguistic experimentation per se, to transcend readings in which form is fetishised above the intertexts, ideology, politics and contexts with which the work engages. The post-structuralist approach is no longer the only filter through which to view the avant-garde. In fact, suspicion of the referential element of language in LIP poetry is deeply desirable for the poet concerned with nature and environment. When I turned to the poetry itself, rather than its criticism, I found that it was that very sense of the gap between our language and our world that preserves respect for the non-linguistic world in these writers. Words and references that conjure up the non-human world are constant in Maggie O’Sullivan’s work, pushing at the inadequacies of language in this area, trying to make it do more and be more, even as it expresses frustration at the difficulty of this ‘saying’:


in happy Yellow lies light
not so much
      leaves, it is & strapped,
volume, this (towards the)
saying of, pushing soil,
(towards the) saying of,

     (towards the)[7]


These lines reveal a drive to speak nature, to ‘the saying of’, yet one that can never fully be articulated, is only ever ‘(towards the)’, in parenthesis. This sense of simultaneous engagement with and resistance to language urges LIP writers on to more and more innovative use of language, whether they strive to close the gap or to draw attention to it, or both, as many writers in this field do. Innovation born of imagination and radical imaginings might be one of our ways out of ideological and ecological stalemates and stagnation.


Turning (with relief) from critical to poetical reading within British experimental poetry, I was struck, again and again, by how many avant-garde poets in this country have complex and thought-provoking slants on locality, pastoral, land politics and ecology/environment. A non-definitive list of such writers would include Allen Fisher, Peter Larkin, Tony Baker, Richard Caddel, Alan Halsey, Maggie O’Sullivan, Frances Presley, Elaine Randell, Gavin Selerie, Tilla Brading, Jennifer Chalmers, Thomas A. Clark, Martin Corless-Smith, Ian Davidson, Harry Gilonis, Giles Goodland, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Bill Griffiths, Randolph Healy, Nicholas Johnson, Trevor Joyce, Peter Larkin, Helen MacDonald, Barry MacSweeney, Billy Mills, Geraldine Monk, Wendy Mulford, Peter Philpott, Peter Riley, Jeremy Prynne, Maurice Scully, Colin Simms, Geoffrey Squires and Catherine Walsh.


I was not in search of paid-up members of the Green Party or pressure groups, but of poetry which touches on ideological questioning of our relationship to the non-human world in ways which, I felt, those concerned with environment would do well to explore. If ecology, as environmentalists attest, is the study of the interrelationship between different ‘natural’, ‘unnatural’, and human elements, then perhaps creative practice (particularly at its cutting edge) has as much, or more, to teach us than the often divided world of criticism and theory. For me, and perhaps for others too, a creative and testing approach to these debates through unconventional or disjunctive practice might prove more productive than a combatative theoretical debate, or might at least complement that debate. I am also talking about my own practice here, though I am not attempting to subsume all these writers under a ‘radical landscape poetry’ umbrella. My critical project has widened since the mid-nineties when I placed my own work within that context and drew attention to the ‘radical landscape poetry’ of various writers in the Bunting tradition who were particularly inspirational to me, such as Caddel, Simms, MacSweeney and O’Sullivan.[8] These poets had all chosen to live in the North of England, as I had, and it was their interest in the locality of specific environments that led, in part, to their ecological concerns.


In this country, linguistically innovative practitioners are cultural outsiders, able to explore and perhaps even identify with suppressed and sidelined issues of the day, including of course ecological issues which have only recently become central to political consciousness. The work of poets such as Barry MacSweeney, Frances Presley, Nicholas Johnson and Wendy Mulford is often imbued with a characteristic scepticism, eroding away at fallacious notions of the divide between nature and culture and making reference to defunct industrial sites, chemical pollution, foot and mouth disease, sea defences and the lack of bio-diversity we find in our semi-rural areas. As such they engage with the elements of land politics that pastoral desire has often excluded, as the critic Sue-Ellen Campbell has pointed out so adroitly in her essay on Edward Abbey’s wilderness writing. Campbell, in a challenge to the Buell approach critiques literature that defines itself specifically as ‘environmental’:


It is increasingly clear to me that environmental literature in general ... works partly by shutting out social and cultural complexities – an omission that’s probably one source of the desire they embody and evoke.[9]


In the light of this trenchant remark, what becomes of human ‘desire’ in experimental poetry? Is the ecstasy and transcendentalism we associate with earlier or traditional ‘nature poetry’ eclipsed by the sceptical awareness of all elements of environment? Once our very concept of nature is questioned then it becomes hard to ‘do’ ecstasy in an uncomplicated way, yet the desire for cosmic possession and/or erotic engagement with place is definitely explored in work by linguistically innovative writers. In my own sequence, Love/Land (Rem Press 2003), I try to acknowledge and explore this desire, even as I wear away its ideological foundations and attempt to see what is really around me in this semi-rural area, rather than what I would like to see. Poetry, unlike critical thought, is adept at performing ‘both/and/and’ in its linguistic acrobatics, as Rachel DuPlessis noted many years ago about the modernist poet H.D.[10] This is a phrase I have always embraced and, in my own terms, applied to the idea that it is possible to acknowledge rather than repress how we feel about place and space as well as to resist the more dangerous implications of this as well as to perceive what is really going on in the world around us.


The ambiguous, overlapping relationship between nature, culture and our own desire is acknowledged in much of this work, in keeping with the sophisticated explorations of nature made by Kate Soper in What Is Nature? She notes that if nature is only that which is independent of culture then there would be very little nature. However she stresses the importance of maintaining awareness of the difference between human and non-human effects and constantly assessing and reassessing the positions of nature and culture, rather than indulging in simplistic defence or denial of this familiar western dualism.[11] In many ways, the subtleties of experimental poetics provide an ideal linguistic arena in which to engage in this shifting and sifting of assessing and reassessing our relationship with the places and spaces we inhabit.


These debates need to be kept, as Soper acknowledges, from the realm of the purely abstract and linguistic: as she says, ‘it is not language that has a hole in its ozone layer’ (151). Local and global awareness are intrinsic to understanding. Aside from their own sense of community, it is notable that the marginalisation of the avant-garde in the U.K. has also encouraged an internationalism amongst experimental writers within these shores. In particular, British writers have gained inspiration and sustenance from their links across the Atlantic with American poets. Often their important modernist ancestors were American, as well as British. For me, poets such as Lorine Niedecker and Charles Olson were significant figures in the development of my own attempt to write an eco-ethical poetics.


All the poets I have cited have connections with and take sustenance from their American, and in many cases other European, contemporaries too and are therefore engaged at a global as well as a local level with other writers. This fruitful interchange between the local and the global is also present in their relationship to land and environment. Many of these writers are distinguished by their intimate sense of the locality around them, relating to place in terms of flora, fauna, geology, place names and history of human use and exploitation.[12] Their philosophies are, however, often global and they move constantly between the micro and macro perspective in a way reminiscent of some of the great modernists, Bunting and MacDiarmid among them. This is a natural and necessary perspective for the environmentalist. These poets do not claim the role of detached observer; they accept implication in, and complicity with, the ways of the world.


When I began this line of research by looking at those poets I felt were ‘radical landscape’ poets, I wanted to examine the complexity of this relationship between writer, land and language in such poetry. I quickly realised how much less likely such poetry was to be imbued with nostalgia for ‘pure nature’ or indeed with the sentimentality so closely associated with ‘nature’ in more traditional poetry of the pastoral tradition. As I broadened my reading beyond poetry associated specifically with nature, it was the importance of avoiding the compartmentalism of issues, of interlacing the concerns of human and land ideologies and politics that struck me in the work of poets such as Geraldine Monk. Drawn as I was to land-based poetry, I needed to widen my reading within the oeuvre of the poets I already read as well as to discover new writers (to me) such as Helen MacDonald and Tilla Brading.


I found that the avant-garde’s established resistance to western binaries, such as mind and body, subject and object, and culture and nature was both significant and provocative, as well as being in keeping with current philosophical directions in environmental thought, if not eco-criticism itself. There is a suspicion of hierarchies, systems and epistemologies to be found in this work. If experimental practice is deeply engaged with some of the key debates which concern environmentalists, it is of course engaged through a practice which goes beyond debate into a form of linguistic action which dares to imagine more recklessly than most. All this stems, not just from innovative practice, but from the all important reassessment of the poet’s role in the world. The avant-garde tradition has eschewed the self-important, traditional lyric ‘I’ in favour of a more relativist and complex sense of the self and of the poet. In a forthcoming essay by Frances Presley, this is explicit:


Although I make use of the lyric form in Somerset Letters, I try to dislocate the sense of the individual lyric ‘eye’. There is an emphasis on the plurality and commonality of experience, as well as its transience.[13]


The problematising of the lyric I and eye goes hand in hand with a relatively self-effacing attitude to the world around that constantly chips away at the anthropocentric perspective of the world. Anthropocentrism is often seen as the enemy of eco-consciousness and activism by many ecologists and critics. As Dominic Head has pointed out, deprivileging of the human subject is characteristic of both postmodernism and environmentalism: in the former, it is one human grouping decentred to be replaced with the ‘Other’ whereas in the latter, it is the object, the planet, which speaks as the other.[14] Both these attempts to re-focus the perspective of the writer and the attention of the reader in favour of the marginalised should and can work together – Maggie O’Sullivan’s remark that ‘exploitation and violation of other-than-human beings underpins our society and is embedded at every level in our h/arming hierarchies’ acknowledges the breadth and depth of violence embedded in the culture.[15] Poetic displacement of the anthropocentric view chime here to make radical landscape poetry one of the most dynamic and innovative places to look for examples of language which dares to imagine the ‘other than human’. In Maggie O’Sullivan’s work, it is possible to see nature moving from its position as resource or thing in order to become an agent in the production of knowledge, a position traditionally denied it, as eco-critic Donna Haraway explains in her analysis of the modern scientific perspective.[16]


The vast majority of poets who I am considering write open form poetry, in that they do not conform to the left-hand margin line, three-five line stanza form most prevalent in traditional poetry. The materiality of their texts is highly significant in its writing, reading and performance, whether it be the tiny furious pages of John Kinsella’s ‘Sheep Dip’ or the huge performance text book of Nicholas Johnson’s ‘Lard’.[17] In all cases, these poets are beneficiaries of what Kathleen Fraser calls the ‘immense permission-giving moment of Charles Olson’s ‘PROJECTIVE VERSE’ manifesto’.[18] Robert Duncan referred to open form writing as ‘the opening of the field’ and this was also of course the title of one of his 1960 volume of poetry.[19] I would argue that the more dynamic, open form style of writing, which makes use of the whole page-space to create, is particularly suited to reflecting on and engaging with the spatial. For me, this has indeed been the openness of a field, moorland, cliff or hillside, those spaces in which we see human and non-human elements at work as on a canvas in the open air. Here, poets might even attempt to embody the vast, complex, inter-related network of vegetation, insect and animal life that such a space contains, and to reflect intelligently upon it. We see it in Colin Simms’s and Maggie O’Sullivan’s often packed, diverse open form pages, both in their entirety and their detail. Here is an extract from Simms’s ‘Rushmore Inhabitation’, a plotting of land, culture, nature, feeling and mind in motion:


Life in the grass is               seed heavy with its message
to us clear             full of bones           as we walk it
the wire                                                      any wire does the same
a country built once of feeling things
                                             the telegraph?                  Sand, land, again
in bed alone, but coming to,   wind-land
running in cuttings like the eternal trains
                              the noise insistent again across the plain
                  its grain      lines run down about a century
[no-one goes by train in the Dakotas now]
                                                    old pick-ups prowl
the rocks which are         loaded with fossil fish of all knowledge
no new species every half-mile even      as in the redbeds of Scotland[20]


The poem winds on, taking in oil pipelines, dinosaurs, and weather as it travels back and forth through the time and space of the place and the page.


We see it in Thomas A Clark’s exquisite art-books in which the infinitesimal adjustments in language, the precise placings of words on the pages convey his ‘intelligence through the eyes’.[21] Here are three individual small pages from his that which appears:


an old gnarled root
dried out and dishevelled
the rope still around it
that dragged it from the ground

parting the flow
a moss-covered boulder
sprinkled with golden
alder leaves

the pondweed is held
by water that
the pondweed holds[22]


Here the active interconnectivity of natural elements in landscape is conveyed; elsewhere Clark explores the effects that even minute, individual human interventions can have in these processes.


We see it in Tony Baker’s use of inter-locking, flowing lines, many (like Lorine Niedecker’s) making equal sense(s) when read with the line above and/or the line beneath:


such extent love has dark
matter   missing    hope
like a tern’s

beak pointed to the ocean human
genome how we live
into other

lives legible plants fishes warmth
impossible to be wise
after the event we are

here dear whisper
us, plural, the
vast star-mash[23]


These are pages which attempt to capture flow, breath, body and sound in dynamic space. As Baker himself says in a forthcoming essay on Paul Blackburn, they ‘create on the page verbal environments that are in many ways congruent with the world of infinite extension that ecology envisions’.[24] Through its open pages and linguistic subtleties, LIP poetry is able to make us feel and think about this place where we live in new and important ways.


[1] The paper I gave at the Pressure to Experiment Conference concluded with a reading from my sequence, Nab, published by etruscan books, 2005 which I have chosen to exclude here in favour of expanding arguments and references a little.

[2] In his seminal text, The Environmental Imagination, Buell’s search for the true, pure ‘environmental text’ leads him to valorise environmental non-fiction above all else, yet I find it interesting that he cannot help himself from referring to a far wider variety of fiction and poetry to back up his arguments, almost despite himself.

[3] Athens and London, The University of Georgia Press, 2002.

[4] Individual essays on experimental American poetry are however beginning to be found in recent eco-critical collections of essays, such as Hart’s essay (see below) and Matthew Cooperman, ‘Charles Olson: Archaeologist of Morning, Ecologist of Evening’ in Tallmadge, John and Harrington, Henry, Reading Under the Sign of Nature: New Essays in Ecocriticism, Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2000 and Eleanor Hersey, ‘“Space Is a Frame We Map Ourselves In”: The Feminist Geographies of Susan Howe’s Frame Structures’ in The Greening of Literary Scholarship, ed. Steven Rosendale, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002: 131-148.

[5] Nick Selby, a British scholar of American Literature, has recently turned his critical eye to work by British poets. An example of his approach can be found in ‘Created Space: Mapping America as Poem in Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End and Susan Howe’s Secret History of the Dividing Line’ in

Journal of American Studies, 39-1 (Spring 2005), pp. 41-64. Matthew Jarvis is author of ‘The Politics of Place in the Poetry of Ian Davidson’, Welsh Writing in English: A Yearbook of Critical Essays, 10 (2005), 97-112, ‘Saving the Earth: Wendy Mulford’s Salthouse’, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment; forthcoming 2008 and ‘Barry MacSweeney’s Moorland Romance’ in Fiona Becket and Terry Gifford, eds, Culture, Creativity and the Environment: New Environmentalist Criticism, Amsterdam, Rodopi Press, forthcoming 2007.

[6] George Hart, ‘Postmodernist Nature/Poetry: The Example of Larry Eigner’ in Tallmadge, John and Harrington, Henry, Reading Under the Sign of Nature: New Essays in Ecocriticism, Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2000, 315-332, 315.

[7] A Natural History in 3 Incomplete Parts, Hebden Bridge; Magenta, 1985, second edition 1997, np. This previously hard-to-access text can now be found in the very welcome new edition of O’Sullivan’s early poems, though without the colours: Maggie O’Sullivan, Body of Work, Hastings, Reality Street Editions, 2006.

[8] Harriet Tarlo, ‘Radical British Landscape Poetry in the Bunting Tradition’ in The Star You Steer By: Basil Bunting and British Modernism, ed. R. Price and J. McGonigal, Editions Rodopi, 2000.

[9] Sue-Ellen Campbell, ‘Magpie’ in Writing the Environment: Ecocriticism and Literature, ed. Richard Kerridge and Neil Sammells, London and New York, Zed Books, 1998, 24.

[10] Rachel Blau DuPlessis, H.D.: The Career of that Struggle , Sussex, Harvester Press, 1986, 113.

[11] Kate Soper, What is Nature?: Culture, Politics and the non-Human, Oxford, U.K. and Cambridge, U.S.A., Blackwell, 1995, 151-2, repr. in The Green Studies Reader, ed. Lawrence Coupe, Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2000, 123.

[12] See Richard Caddel’s ‘Ground’ in Magpie Words, Sheffield, West House Books, 2002, 94-101, Harry Gilonis’s Forty Funghi, with Erica Van Horn, Tipperary: Ireland, Coracle Press, 1994 and Wendy Mulford, ‘The East Anglia Sequence,’ in and suddenly supposing: Selected Poems, Buckfastleigh, Etruscan Books, 2002 as extended examples of this.

[13] ‘Common Pink Metaphor: From The Landscape Room to Somerset Letters’ in Crowded Spaces: British Perspectives on Environmentalism ,Literature and Culture, eds. Richard Kerridge and Harriet Tarlo, contracted to University of Virginia Press.

[14] Dominic Head, ‘The (Im)possibility of Ecocriticism’, Kerridge and Sammels, 28.

[15] Maggie O’Sullivan/ Dell Olsen, ‘Writing/Conversation: An Interview by Mail’, November/December 2003, How2,, np.

[16] Haraway, Donna, ‘Introduction’ in Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science, New York and London, Routledge, 1989.

[17] John Kinsella, Sheep Dip, Bray, Co.Wicklow, Wild Honey Press, 1998.

[18] Kathleen Fraser, Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity, Tuscaloosa and London, The University of Alabama Press, 2000, 175.

[19] Robert Duncan, The Opening of the Field (1960), New York, New Directions, 1973.

[20] Colin Simms, ‘Rushmore Inhabitation’ in Blue Cloud Quarterly, South Dakota 1976, np.

[21] Thomas A. Clark, ‘Riasg Buidhe’ in Tormentil and Bleached Bones, Edinburgh, Polygon, 1993, 85.

[22] Thomas A. Clark, that which appears, London, The Paragon Press, 1994, np.

[23] Tony Baker, In Transit, Hastings, Reality Street Editions, 2005.

[24] ‘The Where Of Wherever We’re At’ in Crowded Spaces: British Perspectives on Environmentalism, Literature and Culture, eds. Richard Kerridge and Harriet Tarlo, contracted to University of Virginia Press.