Lynn Keller


On her book Recomposing Ecopoetics: North American Poetry of the Self-Conscious Anthropocene

Cover Interview of January 15, 2018

The wide angle

The concept of the “self-conscious Anthropocene,” introduced in the book’s title, is one of the book’s innovations and points to its larger significance. The term Anthropocene was introduced in 2000 by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer, to identify this period in the planet’s history when humans have become the predominant geological force, profoundly altering the make-up of the soil, the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, the acidity of the oceans, and more. Stoermer and Crutzen dated this epoch from the Industrial Revolution. As the International Stratigraphy Commission considers whether to accept the Anthropocene as the official geological epoch we occupy (thereby declaring an end to the Holocene), there has been extensive debate among scientists about the date that should be considered its beginning; proposed originary moments range from as early as the start of agriculture to as late as 1950 and the post-atomic age of the “Great Acceleration.” Unconnected to those debates, my phrase “self-conscious Anthropocene” refers to the period since the term Anthropocene was proposed, and marks not a geological transformation but a pervasive cultural one: in the 21st century there is widespread, often anxious awareness of the scale and significance of human impact on the planetary environment. The poetry I examine reflects that important cultural phenomenon.

One benefit of the concept of the Anthropocene is its drawing together under one umbrella all the anthropogenic (human-caused) environmental changes. Its coinage accompanied an explicit call for engineers and scientists in multiple fields to come together to move industrialized societies in more sustainable directions. While Crutzen and Stoermer did not address themselves to the role of the arts and humanities, it has become clear that producing environmentally sound changes in public policy and societal behavior will require not just greater scientific understanding but also new narratives, changed imaginations, and reconsidered values. The poets featured in Recomposing Ecopoetics are among the artists responding to those crucial planetary needs.