Zoopoetics Chapter Descriptions


Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014).

The Coat of a Horse: A Prelude     

This prelude establishes the agency of a horse’s bodily poiesis in a way that anticipates the argument of the introduction. The horse becomes a maker through the somatic gestures of his ears, flanks, skin, muscles—and such gestures are clear enough for a jockey to read and respond.

Chapter 1 | Zoopoetics: An Introduction

Gestures are paramount to zoopoetics: animal gestures, human gestures, the bodily gestures that migrated to the gestures of the human mouth, the textual gestures of the poetic page. The introduction foregrounds how gestures illuminate the continuity between human↔animal spheres and how gestures are essential to the evolution of poetry and poetics across the long 20th century. The emphasis on gestures in 20th century poetics contextualizes the zoopoetic dynamic I explore in subsequent chapters.

Mimic Octopi: An Interlude

Mimic Octopi epitomize zoopoetics, for their sudden poiesis emerges from an attentiveness to other marine ways of being.

Chapter 2 | Walt Whitman & the Origin of Poetry

Whitman’s origin of poetry resides in the elemental forces of the earth and of the body—but this includes bodies other than human. Emerson encourages a “metre-making argument” driven by a thought “so passionate and alive that like a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own” (from “The Poet”). I contend that along with an origin of poetry inclusive of many species, Whitman also discovered innovations in the architectures of his poems through an interplay between poetic form and the poiesis of other animal ways of being.

Cats: An Interlude

This interlude marvels at a cat’s ability to weave herself into the social fabric of a home andit anticipates the following chapter’s exploration of one of Cummings’ most daring zoopoetic moments: “(im)c-a-t(mo)”­­—his cat poem.

Chapter 3 | “Whose poem is this?”: E. E. Cummings’ Zoopoetics

Cummings, as a descendant of Whitman, revisits the theme of animality more explicitly than any other modernist poet. Cummings’ attentiveness to animals contributed to some of the most innovative breakthroughs in poetic form to such an extent that Cummings acknowledges other species for their contributions to his work.

Beluga Whales: An Interlude

Humans are not the only species to discover innovative breakthroughs in form through an attentiveness to another species; beluga whales do so as well. Through an attentiveness to humans, a beluga whale achieved breakthroughs in how he manipulates his vestibular sacs. Such an innovative moment is bittersweet. We observe such breakthroughs because the beluga whale is in captivity, and we discover such capacities in the midst of mass extinction. This interlude foreshadows discussions of extinction and Merwin’s whales.

Chapter 4 | “learning my steps”: Zoopoetics and Mass Extinction in W. S. Merwin’s Poetry

Merwin provides a needed iteration of zoopoetics. Though he, too, discovers innovative breakthroughs in form through an attentiveness to animals, he writes with an acute awareness of their absence. His attentiveness to the absence of animals contributes to some of his poetic breakthroughs. However, in The Vixen Merwin attentively engages myriad species who are present, and I argue that his sauntering, attentive disposition contributed to the innovative form used throughout the book.

Elephants: An Interlude

This interlude foregrounds the agency of elephants to protect their social ways of being. It also explores the bodily poiesis at work when several elephants return to the bones of their fallen matriarch. Their poiesis is nothing short of a ritual of mourning, and I suggest it ought to be considered in the tradition of pastoral elegies—especially as one elephant rubs her trunk along the teeth of the matriarch’s exposed skull. Such a sign is normally used for greeting amongst elephants; the effort to “greet” the absence of the matriarch through the presence of her skull hints at the elephants’ capacity to experience a profound grappling with the loss of a loved one. This interlude anticipates the following arguments where the polis expands to include other species than humans.

Chapter 5 | The Zoopoetics of a Multispecies Polis: Brenda Hillman’s Practical Water

In Practical Water, the forms (gestures) of several poems harmonize with the bodily poiesis of a given animal, from blackbirds, to thrush, horses, earthworms, and more. Through the play of gestures, the human↔animal spheres merge creating a multispecies event. This event, though, takes place in an urban setting where “nature” is not “out there” but rather on the front steps of a state capitol building.

Hillman’s innovative poetic forms draw attention to the materiality of both the poetic page and of an animal’s bodily movements/gestures—but in a political context. When Hillman explicitly echoes Shelley’s poets are legislatures, she reminds readers of the shared history of poetry and politics. Unlike Shelley, though, Hillman’s political poetics extend to include (abundantly) the poiesis of animals, and she encourages readers to wrangle with the ways that animals—like the poet—legislate.

The zoopoetic dynamic in Practical Water, then, contributes to the creation of a post-pastoral and very political lyric where animals move from the periphery of the polis to being thoroughly integrated throughout.

Owls: A Postlude

Many of the themes of this project accumulate within the anecdote of this postlude: animal poiesis, animal mourning, human anguish at the loss of animals; human poiesis arising from an attentiveness towards animals; and a multispecies polis. The anecdote recounts when I saw two owls in the middle of the road. One dead. The other perched on a yellow line. . . .


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All this work by Aaron Moe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at http://aaronmoe.com.

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