My research areas include poetry, the environmental humanities, and food studies. My book project examines the organic metaphors that shaped poetics, ecology, and sustainable farming advocacy in the twentieth century.
“Towards an Ecopoetics of Food: The Capacities of Plants, Modern Agriculture, and Colonized Landscapes in Lorine Niedecker’s ‘New Goose’ Poems” appeared in Modernism/modernity in January 2018. In this article, I analyze Niedecker’s short poems about food and farming from the 1930s and 40s in the context of Wisconsin’s agricultural, environmental, and colonial history. I draw on critical plant studies and food studies to show how Niedecker constructs multilayered linguistic and conceptual puns that depend on detailed knowledge of plants from asparagus to quack-grass and of agro-industrial practices from planting apple orchards to condensing milk. (See my Academia.edu profile for a longer abstract.)
In “Hubris and Humility in Environmental Thought” (The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities, 2017), I examine the concepts of hubris and humility that have structured much environmentalist thought from Stewart Brand and Wendell Berry’s debates about space colonies in the CoEvolution Quarterly in the 1970s to current arguments about conservation in the Anthropocene. Analyzing the Ecomodernist Manifesto and the Dark Mountain Project, I argue that hubris and humility, despite their inadequacies, remain urgent concepts for environmentalism.
In “Browning’s Critique of Organic Form in The Ring and the Book,” published in Victorian Poetry in Fall 2014, I show how Robert Browning, through both the form of The Ring and the Book and the organic figures he uses for its female protagonist, critiques the conservative sociopolitical tendencies of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s seminal version of literary organic form.
“Rethinking Organic Metaphors in Poetry and Ecology: Rhizomes and Detritus Words in Oni Buchanan’s ‘Mandrake Vehicles,’” appeared in the Journal of Modern Literature in Fall 2011. It examines a contemporary American poet’s rhizomatic revision of organic form in relation to the vexed history of organic metaphors in poetry and in the science of ecology.
Organic Forming: Poetry, Ecology, Food shows how twentieth-century revisions of organic form in poetry shaped the concept of the “organic” that is now ubiquitous in certified organic food labels and green consumerist advertising. In this book manuscript, I analyze organic metaphors — that is, attempts to understand a poem, a farm, or an ecosystem by seeing it as an organism — across twentieth-century American poetry, ecology, and organic farming advocacy in the UK and the US.
This project practices interdisciplinary environmental humanities by following a metaphor that draws disparate discourses into conversation. A distinctively Romantic version of organic metaphor enters Anglo-American thought via Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s essays on literature and biology and from there spreads out into fields including architecture, sociology, political thought, musicology, art, and the three I focus on here: poetry, ecology, and sustainable agriculture.
Each chapter examines a specific propensity of organic metaphors — breath and body, discipline and agency, compost and waste, and dissemination — through analysis of work by poets such as Charles Olson, Muriel Rukeyser, Lorine Niedecker, Robert Duncan, A. R. Ammons, and Ronald Johnson, and of writing by sustainable farming advocates including Helen and Scott Nearing, Sir Albert Howard, J. I. Rodale, Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, Wes Jackson, Will Allen, and Barbara Kingsolver.
Though this is a study of metaphor, there are concrete connections between poetry and the organic farming movement. Wendell Berry’s work is the most obvious link: his writing on agriculture has shaped local food movements in the US, his poems track his changing conception of organic form, and his essays reflect on organic metaphors in all their guises. A more surprising connection is T. S. Eliot, who was involved in the right-wing organic farming movement in the UK in the 1940s.
Reading organic form in poetry from an environmental perspective revises our understanding of the history of literary criticism and of the relationship between literary and environmentalist discourses. This project intervenes both in long-running formalist debates about openness and closure and in recent debates about ecocritical approaches to literary form. By reading organic form in poetry, the locus classicus of formalist closure, as inherently environmental, I show how thinking through the metaphor of the organism — whose provisional autonomy depends on the structured openings through which it eats and breathes — leads to open forms and attention to material interconnectedness.
At the same time, I address the accusations of formal naïveté that have been leveled at ecocriticism. While some scholars argue that ecocriticism has overlooked form in favor of content or has treated literary form as mimetic of a nature understood through outdated versions of ecology, I investigate the ways in which poets, organic farming advocates, ecologists, and environmental writers use organic metaphors to shape the collaborations between nature and culture that they construct. In the writings of organic farming advocates from Sir Albert Howard to Will Allen of Milwaukee’s urban farm Growing Power, organic metaphors turn our attention from idealizing the holism of the self-sufficient farm to constructing sustainable agricultural systems.