After I became Washington State’s sixth poet laureate and the first from an Indigenous community, one of the questions I was often asked was if there is a word for poem in my tribal language. I had not learned it, so I went to my teachers, who said, “Well, it could be a sxwiam, a story; a stilem, a song; or a tiwielx, a prayer. I loved this answer because in our culture we know that one needs three things to be sturdy enough to thrive in hard times: stories, songs, and prayers. Poetry is all three, and indeed it has carried me through many hard times. 

During my past two years of service, I have visited with people from all walks of life and have encountered many attitudes toward poetry. Most are sincere and full of gratitude for an opportunity to be creative and engage with the world beyond textbooks and spreadsheets, but there is always, without fail, a nonbeliever, an individual who thinks what we are doing here with this poetry is charming, sweet, and utterly superfluous. Understanding the power of poetry as something essential is perhaps why I am most put off by this attitude. 

I suspect that people who are dismissive of poetry are made uncomfortable by its veracity. It’s true, many poets I know come off as charming and sweet but we are warriors, scientists, and healers. We are here to say what would be rejected if expressed in ordinary words. We are here to burrow through the layers of emotional sediment accumulated around the fragile ego of humanity. Sure, we’re also here to talk about crickets and the unceasing poetry of the earth, but you should know that means talking about death and birth, love and wounding, capitalism and ecocide, climate crisis and extinction. 

In poetry, we are here to talk about living—and not just to talk about it, but to connect with life and one another. What I am trying to say here is better said by others who have written before me, particularly the Indigenous Canadian writer Lee Maracle: “We regard words as coming from original being—a sacred spiritual being. The orator is coming from a place of prayer and as such attempts to be persuasive. Words are not objects to be wasted. They represent the accumulated knowledge, cultural values, the vision of an entire people or peoples. We believe the proof of a thing or idea is in the doing.”2      

Here, amid a polar vortex, a wildfire, a hurricane, a heat wave, or a flood, it is perhaps difficult to feel like poetry could save us. Perhaps because we call on poets for eulogies and consolation as we sift through the ashes, we are missing their role as storytellers, bearers of cultural values, and builders of the world. The word poetry comes from the ancient Greek, “to make.” A poem is offered as a means of understanding the world. If we agree on our understanding, we are making reality. This is powerful. It is the results of the actions we take together, the doing, that will be the proof of the world we have agreed upon. 

Poetry, while precise, relies on metaphor and celebrates connections. It honors individuality while simultaneously embracing alternate perspectives. This makes it an ideal tool for bringing people together in conversation around difficult topics. Talking about ecological disaster will divide a room quickly, whereas ecopoetry invokes a feeling for what is at stake. It can serve as a powerful call to action around which people can unify.

There is a poem that I love by Louise Erdrich called “Advice to Myself.” The whole poem is a glorious crescendo to this perfect bit of advice:       

Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.

Is this an example of ecopoetry? Yes, I would say so. It demands we rethink what we have previously deemed necessary. Beyond that, I would even say that all poetry is ecopoetry because we are ecology, and addressing what separates us from ourselves and the world around us is necessary. I was recently in Las Vegas, where amid all that glitz and excess, I was thinking about how the human suffering brought about by the climate crisis grows more dire every day, and yet how inappropriate a buzzkill it is to talk of such things in a city like Las Vegas (and really pretty much anywhere). One instinctively recoils. 

In Las Vegas, it becomes clear that the climate crisis gets so little attention because climate action offers no titillation, no high. Facing reality is the opposite of winning at the tables, the opposite of drinking your face off and leaving your regrets behind at the airport. The ecocide that happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and the whole world is a metaphor for Vegas, and we are always lifting off into the air, watching our excesses vanish as we climb to thirty thousand feet.

So where do we talk about it? Of course, science and prose are important tools for measurement and sharing information, but how to make meaning of it when there is so much resistance? How can a pie chart that visually represents our level of complete screwed-ness incite action? How can another grim news article light a fire under our feet? Have you ever been so overwhelmed that you were on the verge of passing out? I recently learned this is caused by strain on the vagus nerve. There is more to it, but one thing that helps calm the vagus nerve is singing. Remember, in my tribal language, a poem is also a song. A song is medicine for when reality is too much to cope with. It’s all very scientific. 

Globally, we are very sick. We need a doctor with an inspiring bedside manner. We need someone to administer bitter medicine with compassion. We need this person to tell us we’re dying while also demanding, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”3 To whisper assurances like a prayer, “The poetry of earth is never dead.”4

1 “The poetry of earth is ceasing never…” from “On the Grasshopper and Cricket” by John Keats

2 From Introduction to Indigenous Literary Criticism in Canada (Broadview Press, 2016), p. 62

3 From “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver

4 From “On the Grasshopper and Cricket” by John Keats

Reprinted from the Fall-Winter 2023 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2023 by Rena Priest