An Ecocritical Look at Whitman and Neruda: Some Initial Thoughts

In my final paper, I will explore the ecocritical relationship between Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda (and maybe William Carlos Williams?). Relative to the exhaustive of the body of scholarship that has been done on Whitman and Neruda, not much emphasis has been placed on the “nature poetry” written by these two poets. Further, the ecological link between the two has not been heavily explored, though I have found enough criticism to serve the purposes of this assignment. So far, a lot of the criticism that I have come across deals with the poets desires to study the relationship between human history and natural history in an effort to build or establish New World cultures. In the many facets of this main idea, I think I can carve out my voice.

In New World Poetics, George Handley proposes that in “The Great Ocean,” from Canto General,  “Neruda may have wanted a reconciliation between natural and human histories if for no other reason than to resolve his anxieties over the indifference ecology implied to human problems, but it is not clear to me that he succeeds. His failure proves instructive because it suggests an ethic in which nature must not be circumscribed by the human story” (266). I am not sure that Neruda is looking for a reconciliation between natural and human histories, but rather, I see Neruda simply exploring nature’s “indifference…to human problems” and though this creates anxiety for him, ultimately he is awed by a nature that is almost in defiance of the human story and human problems. Also, the ocean in this poem is representative of nature’s endless cycles of rebirth and regeneration, what Neruda calls “purifying acts of demolition.” In this way, the endless cycles of rebirth are also endless cycles of death.

Though there is a strong connection between Neruda’s “The Great Ocean” and Whitman’s poems about the ocean, I see a similar poetic journey in Whitman’s “This Compost.” Like Neruda’s awe, Whitman is both “startled” and “terrified” at the earth’s ability to regenerate life from the diseased ruins of humanity. In Walt Whitman and the Earth, M. Jimmie Killingsworth calls this awe Whitman’s “respect for the power of the earth’s processes to restore health and complete its mighty cycles” (83). In addition, Killingworth notices a similar theme of Earth’s indifference in “This Compost,” asserting that “the suspicion that the earth is indifferent to and separated from human purposes to question the sense of kinship and belonging,” human beings’ kinship and belonging to the earth (82). I would also like to explore this idea of “kinship and belonging” but I am not quite sure where that might take me just yet.

Both of these poems reminded me of William Carlos Williams’s “Spring and All.” I see Williams interacting with a similar notion of nature’s indifference, rebutting Eliot’s desolate vision with the emergence of Spring in spite of all the death. Williams is comforted by that fact. I like the contrast of Williams’s optimistic faith in nature with Whitman and Neruda’s awe and anxiety.

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One Response to An Ecocritical Look at Whitman and Neruda: Some Initial Thoughts

  1. dana t says:

    I am really interested in the earth’s indifference and questioning of kinship and belonging, I think you should write your whole paper on it. But, just to relate it within your current paper, I think at a base level it can be compared to Neruda’s “purifying acts of demolition”… with demolition having more of a detached sense to it. It reminds me of Spahr’s ship refueling and going out at night (which is more technological than the earth of course, but same feeling). Either way, I think it is a really interesting point you should play with.

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