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The Zen of Ecopoetics: the contribution of Zen to modernist American poetry

In Breathing: Chaos and Poetry, the Italian philosopher Franco Berardi suggests that poetry is the excess of semiotic exchange that goes beyond the limits of language and, by extension, transcends the limits of reality as we know it. In this sense, poetry offers us a way of rethinking our relationship with non-human beings and environments, a relationship that, particularly in Western civilisation, has proved to be so exploitative as to lead to significant environmental devastation and the impoverishment of social life. By signalling that poetry is able to provide an experience of reality unmediated by reason and logical language, Berardi expresses an understanding of life that is at the core of Zen Buddhist thinking and practice: life as that which cannot be defined, that which exceeds the limits of our language and of our world. And so, the aim of this course is to introduce the reader and writer of poetry to a poetic imagination fuelled by Zen experience. Such poetic imagination can be perceived in the momentous case of early- to mid-twentieth-century American poetry.

From the early to mid-twentieth century, the United States saw an increasing interest in East Asian religions such as Zen Buddhism. Along with modern variants of bohemianism and drug experimentation, Zen fuelled the counterculture movement and its striving for more fluid and open forms of consciousness. This period also marked a renewed concern with our relationship with non-human beings and environments. In this course, we’ll discuss poets who, through the influence of Zen Buddhism, reshaped their poetic experimentation and reflected on the relationship between poetics and the environment. We’ll begin by tracing the history and main changes in the transmission of Zen Buddhism from the East to the West as well as examining the main principles of Zen in a comprehensive and accessible way. We’ll also touch on contemporary definitions of ecopoetics and study examples of the influence of Zen Buddhism on modernist American experimentalism. We’ll read poets such as William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Gary Snyder, E. E. Cummings, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Kaufman, Diane di Prima, and Jane Hirshfield.

The course aims at expanding our views on modernist experimentation to include the strong contribution of Zen Buddhism. By analysing the influence of Zen on modernist American poetry we will also reflect on how Zen has contributed (and still contributes) to poetic practices that are attuned to the climate crisis. By doing so, our aim is to acknowledge the valuable contribution of Zen Buddhism in enabling alternative forms of ecological awareness for contemporary poetic practice.

Book here for Enaiê Mairê Azambuja’s online course ‘The Zen of Ecopoetics’, running as part of our Summer Term 2022.

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