A cultural study in the poetics of ecological consciousness: prolegomena to the poetry of John Burnside
This thesis -- originally entitled “Reckoning the Unnamed Fabric”, both a cultural study of the poetics of ecological consciousness and the ecology of poetic consciousness -- investigates the post-Romantic legacy informing John Burnside’s (b. 1955) poetry from The hoop (1988) to The Light Trap (2002) as a case study. The thesis argues that a developing aesthetic form and movement in subject derive from Burnside’s increasing involvement with ecological thought and practice. This move to the poetry of the oikos begins with an investigation of the self through the reconciliation of subject with object (or human with nature), and latterly has moved into a sustained reflection upon the idea of dwelling. This thesis relates the chronological development across Burnside’s nature poetry to an aesthetic infused with religious iconography and language, which via an evolving motif-poem of ‘world-soul’ or ‘communal fabric’ increases in its secular and empirical inflection. I read Burnside’s elevation of historical materialism s a progression in Wordsworthian craft and as a result of the poet’s pragmatic reflection on dwelling; I argue that the poetic consolidation of the intrinsic value of nature as an active and guiding spirit promotes nature less as a place for inhabitants than as the site and point of relation. The argument responds to Burnside’s transatlantic perspective from which he questions what it means to live as a spirit, and what a poetics of ecology can achieve in respect to the human subjective lyric and the need to transcend the human into the collective. To address these questions, which are implicit in Burnside's oeuvre, I draw upon Heideggerian poetics and American post-Transcendentalist Romanticism. I locate Burnside’s poetics within philosophical, aesthetic, and ecological frameworks. First, Burnside’s poetry is primarily a poetics of ontology that understands the ‘I’ within the midst of things yet underpinned by epistemology/hermeneutics; second, Burnside exhibits neo-Romantic poetry that has engaged with Modern American poetry -- it is this fusion that I call post-Romantic; third, the ecological constitutes both Burnside’s political stance and his aesthetic-poetic stance. I read the latter as a reflection of Jonathan Bate’s notion of the ecopoem as the “post-phenomenological inflection of high Romantic poetics”, an idea which is most apposite when read in relationship with Burnside’s path towards the metaphysical inscribed in the historical.