[(essay date 2002) In the following essay, Long argues that a careful study of Williams's poetry and his theories concerning the impossibility of a direct connection between poetic language and unmediated reality should be of particular use to contemporary poets interested in exemplifying a new framework for interacting with the environment.]
I could not be a poet without the natural world. Without the human, how would I ever know nature?
Most readers come to William Carlos Williams by way of a red wheelbarrow. This indelible image has come to stand in for the significance and distinctiveness of Williams's literary project. "So much depends" upon the wheelbarrow, and the qualities sustained in the image--
glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.1
Similarly, generations of readers have come to understand Williams's poetics through the phrase "No ideas but in things," those deceptively simple words found in the opening lines of the book-length poem Paterson. The phrase signifies a poetics predicated not on ideas but rather on things, underscoring a poetic project that seeks immediate contact with the world. But so much more depends upon "The Red Wheelbarrow" in its unexcerpted place in a twenty-seven-section poetic sequence imbedded within the prose of "Spring and All." A survey of critical accounts of Williams's poetics will show a surprisingly consistent acceptance of Williams's romantic quest for immediate contact. It will come as no surprise, then, that studies of the social implications of Williams's project have concluded that Williams's social aim, in the words of one contemporary critic--"to free his readers' imaginations so that they could experience the world with sensual immediacy--is profoundly apolitical, even asocial."2
This aim to free the imagination as the prior condition to experiencing the world with sensual immediacy has been instrumental in determining the critical conversation about environmental and ecological poetry.3 Yet, as John Elder suggests in Imagining the Earth, nature poetry, at best, does not simply reflect but shapes our vision of nature. "Poetic form," writes Elder, "secures a plot where the fruitful decay of order and intentions may occur; an unsuspected landscape rises through the traces of a poem's plan."4 Poetic form is, in this definition, an especially promising site for more than simply renewing awareness--"the fruitful decay of order and intentions" depends on encountering an alternative to our necessarily limited experiential and cognitive frames. A poem is understood here as not merely a site for reflecting on our limits but as a space in which we might learn to construct alternative ways of thinking and acting in the world. Seeking primary, preverbal experience, then, is perhaps a necessary but in no way sufficient end for the environmentally or ecologically inclined poet.
More recent studies of nature poetry develop this connection between the experiential and referential function of literature and the politically and socially inflected rhetoric of poets who explicitly seek to reorient language toward the biocentric laws of nature. Writers such as A. R. Ammons, Wendell Berry, Denise Levertov, W. S. Merwin,...