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Ecological Poetics; or, Wallace Stevens’s Birds

The poems of Wallace Stevens teem with birds: grackles, warblers, doves, swans, nightingales, owls, peacocks, and one famous blackbird who summons thirteen ways of looking. What do Stevens’s evocations of birds, and his poems more generally, tell us about the relationship between human and nonhuman? In this book, the noted theorist of posthumanism Cary Wolfe argues for a philosophical and theoretical reinvention of ecological poetics, using Stevens as a test case.

Stevens, Wolfe argues, is an ecological poet in the sense that his places, worlds, and environments are co-created by the life forms that inhabit them. Wolfe argues for a “nonrepresentational” conception of ecopoetics, showing how Stevens’s poems reward study alongside theories of system, environment, and observation derived from a multitude of sources, from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Niklas Luhmann to Jacques Derrida and Stuart Kauffman. Ecological Poetics is an ambitious interdisciplinary undertaking involving literary criticism, contemporary philosophy, and theoretical biology.

232 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2020

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature, General Criticism and Critical Theory


“In this remarkable and elegant book, Wolfe achieves a stunning account of the inhumanness, the ‘strange planetary impersonality’ of Stevens’s poetry. Ecological Poetics carves out a new space for study within the general field of ecopoetics, focusing on a kind of poetry that reproduces rather than represents the peculiar logic of many biological, physical, and computational systems. Wolfe delivers a powerful new engine for thought, one that we can add to our repertoires of critical ideas and methods and apply to the larger cultural topic of environmentality.”

Marjorie Levinson, University of Michigan

“The Stevens that emerges in Ecological Poetics is a new and very different animal from the one we thought we knew. We come to understand him as concerned with the embodied, the finite, the fragile, and the concrete, rather than preoccupied with abstract concepts and an idealist aesthetics. Through a series of excellent close readings, especially of his later poems, Stevens becomes the thinker to help us understand the vertiginous logic of the Anthropocene. Wolfe gives us a philosophy of ecological poetics whose ultimate stakes are both ethical and political, instructing us in how we might think poetically in order to effectively resist the destruction of life forms."

Branka Arsic, Columbia University

"In his new book, Cary Wolfe, a scholar of poetics in the American grain turned bioethicist and thought leader in the new field of posthumanism, cogently and often brilliantly rereads Wallace Stevens as a practitioner of what we might call second-order ecopoetics—a poetry that is less interested in describing the natural world than it is in demonstrating and enacting on a stylistic level what Timothy Morton has called “ecological thought.”

Wallace Stevens Journal

"Readers of Ecological Poetics will find an ambitious and passionate call for widening the purview of posthumanism: an inter-disciplinary and rigorously precise posthumanist ecocritical methodology. Wolfe constructs a persuasive and valuable theoretical framework for reconsidering environmentality more broadly and for reassessing the ecological complexity of Stevens’s later works."

ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment

Table of Contents

Preface: “An Affair of Places”

Part 1. Reading Stevens, Once More

Chapter 1. Poems (and Critics) of Our Climate
Chapter 2. “Like Seeing Fallen Brightly Away”: A New Theory for the Emerson/Stevens Genealogy

Part 2. From Epistemological to Ecological Poetics

Chapter 3. “There Is No World”: Deconstruction, Theoretical Biology, and the Creative Universe
Chapter 4. “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same”

Part 3. “Farewell to an Idea”: Some Later Long Poems

Chapter 5. Scapes and Spheres
Chapter 6. “Premetaphysical Pluralism”: Dwelling in the Ordinary

Coda: Indirections, on the Way


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