This Compost

Spending whatever little free reading time is left after substracting the time spent at University work and the time spent working on the more or less daily writing and that spent on the various contracted literary editorial and translation projects, rereading Jed Rasula’s This Compost, Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry, published in 2002 by Georgia University Press. It’s a pleasure to hold this lovely hardcover in one’s hand — but also discouraging to note that 4 years after its publication there still is no paperback edition, and that therefore it is difficult to put the $40 book on a course I’m teaching where I ask the students to buy 10 to 12 books. And that’s a shame as This Compost is a motherload of informative thinking about the last 50 years in US poetry. Obviously I can use his Syncopations: the stress of innovation in contemporary american poetry, published in 2004 in the contemporary poetry & poetics series at Alabama UP, which is a masterful collection of essays though more limited or, better, pointed, in scope (you can read my review of Syncopations in the current issue of the American Book Review, edited by Kass Fleisher and Joe Amato). But right now it is This Compost I’m thinking about, and this Sunday morning more specifically the following marvelous paragraph that riffs on possible descriptions / definitions of what poetry is or can be for Rasula today:

Poetry is a kind of echo-location. But since its medium is language, its repertoire of echoes is bewilderingly diverse. The greediest of gifts, the most beneficent of appropriations, poetry is language disclosed as paradox, where naming does not re-present but dissolves and then reforms creation, where the speaker too is dissolved into the act of speech and reemerges, alieniloquiam, as another, a reader or listener who is in turn displaced from self-assurance, forced to take up residence in the strange. Poetry is this strangely familiar realm of estrangements, its uncanniness preternaturally arousing a maximum alertness, but an alertness achieved, paradoxically, by dissolving the resources of intellection and identity.

The footnote to the first sentence reads: “The thought is indebted to Calvin Martin: ‘One of the gerat insights of hunter scieties is that words and artifice of specific place and place-beings (animal and plant) constitute humanity’s primary instruments of self-location, the computation of where, in the deepest sense, one is in the biosphere, using words and artifice that have accurately touched the place and these elder beings. For mankind is fundamentally an echo-locator, like out distant relatives the propoise and the bat’ (In the Spirit of the Earth, 103).’”

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3 responses to “This Compost”

  1. Robert Avatar

    “Poetry is this strangely familiar realm of estrangements, its uncanniness preternaturally arousing a maximum alertness, but an alertness achieved, paradoxically, by dissolving the resources of intellection and identity.”

    This is a brilliant summary of what Stephen Booth might call the Precious Nonsense element of poetry.

  2. Pierre Joris Avatar
    Pierre Joris

    Not sure why I should take a crime writer’s word on what poetry is about.

  3. JS Avatar

    I reviewed this book extensively in issue 3 of ecopoetics–you can get the pdf free at

    Indeed, it’s a shame that this title is so inaccessible. I was thinking of using it for a course the coming Spring myself, but hadn’t noticed the hardcover price. (My copy was a review copy.) A problem with University Press publishing in general.

    There wasn’t much discussion around this book, either, far as I could tell. Neither in poetics world nor in ecocritics world. (I got my review copy at the Georgia UP table for the 2003 Association for the Study of Environment and Literature Conference in Boston. No one bought it, and I don’t think many conferees even looked at it, so I was able to walk away with the copy at the end of the conference.) A shame, considering it’s one of the more adventurous books of poetics/ criticism to have come out in the past five years. It will mature well with time (like all good compost), but for that it needs to stay in print!

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