Diversity of form

“Diversity” is a buzz word among educational institutions these days, and I sometimes get a bit tired of hearing it. Diversity as a buzz word becomes like a dead metaphor; we stop thinking about what it means.

Yet when I am reading about biology or evolution, “diversity” flowers into meaning again.253142_2101392498695_2412222_n

Also, after the reading I recently gave, a thoughtful member of the audience remarked upon how literal and concrete the poems in my first book are–especially compared with some of the more speculative and abstract poems I read in response to the “questioning” theme.

Has my writing become less concrete over the years, I wondered. The response is yes and no. In some respects, my poems convey specific and concrete images and actually-possible events, but a mixing tends to occur between & among the lines. Even in that first book: it is, in fact, about building a house. (Concrete was involved!) As I composed the poems that make up the book, however, I realized how metaphorical the whole idea of house, home, hearth, shelter is. Think of the imagery of a house and ingrained, almost mythical connotations arise. The window. The door. The key. The roof. The rooms (stanza means “room” –even the poem offers shelter).

So back to diversity–there is, in the world of poetry and poetics, diversity of form, just as in biology. There are “set forms” such as the sonnet, which turns out not to be quite as “set” as might be expected (see this entry at The Academy of American Poets and this one by Rachel Richardson at the Poetry Foundation). I love diversity of form and have experimented throughout my life with different strategies of written expression, sometimes sound-based or rhythm-based or image-based or codified by the “rules.” I have also broken the rules just for fun, often to good effect. Free verse, metrical verse, alliteration, allusions, puns…I love them all.

The downside of such play, if this can be considered a downside, is that winging it the way I do–as to formal approaches–means that my collected work does not fit a style. I wonder if that is why my second full-length collection languishes unpublished. It’s entirely possible that the poems in The Red Queen Hypothesis are not very good poems. Critical feedback has suggested that isn’t the problem, though (whew!). The problem may be diversity! Publishers, like most human beings, love to categorize. What does not nestle into categories becomes the odd duck.


odd duck

The reason I chose these poems for this collection, however, has much to do with varieties. The poems deal with the abstract and the biological, the cosmological and the everyday. They stem from a notion that life evolves continuously, making each object and being individual as part of an ever-changing, meshing, chaotic and– paradoxically, but of course!–unified universe. Uni (one). Verse (a pun). The underpinning of The Red Queen Hypothesis is diversity, though that may not be its theme.

So I am not planning to revise the already-much-revised collection; I’ll just persist in sending it out to publishers while hope springs eternal. In the meantime, I have been pondering where the next set of poems is headed. Possibly along the edges. It will be interesting to find out.


Diversity. Not.

I must admit, it is challenging to read Elizabeth Kolbert‘s book The Sixth Extinction without feeling a bit of dread.

Nonetheless, the book is informative and fascinating–even funny at times–and well worth reading if you are the type who can get beyond your anthropocentric leanings and attempt to view the long-range picture from a scientific, if not exactly neutral, viewpoint. Her main argument is that we are, indeed, in the midst of a 6th mass extinction era and that human beings are “the weed” that most likely is the cause of these numerous extinctions–and not just since the industrial revolution, but eons before that. Humans travel more effectively than almost any life form, and that leads gradually to a loss of diversity. Read the book to find out how that works.

I find interesting parallels with socio-cultural trends in the ecological struggle for and against diversity. Niche-dwelling creatures or societies adapt to some challenging environment and develop or evolve ways to deal with adversity–cold temperatures, constant rain, saline soils, whatever. Nomadism, for example, is a way to adapt to seasonal weather challenges.

When an ‘alien’ enters a niche area, it usually dies off; but if it can adapt, there is hybridism or conquering. Tolerance, it turns out–living peacefully in tandem using the same resources–is not a common evolutionary strategy, though there are examples of symbiotic ecological relationships and, of course, parasitism of the sort that does not quickly kill off the host. Conquering generally means lost diversity.

When a niche organism ventures, accidentally or otherwise (forcibly, sometimes) into a new region as ‘alien,’ the special characteristics of the creature cause it to die or, in some cases, to have to adapt to a different set of circumstances…and diversity gets lost pretty quickly that way. In my region, for example, wetlands have experienced overruns of phragmites.

Does this sound like emigration? War? Forced removal of peoples? Indigenous populations killed off by measles or smallpox? Young people leaving remote areas to try to find work in cities? I see a metaphor here!

While human beings may try to celebrate diversity (which is better than using diversity to identify and exclude or punish “the other”), we probably cannot keep ourselves from becoming, over the centuries, less and less various. A homogeneous world seems, to me, to be a place impoverished through lack of niches and creative adaptation–but that’s what happens when mass extinctions take place: a depletion of kinds in the fossil record.

You might want to read Robert Sullivan’s New York Magazine article for even more recent scientific evidence if you’re not up to reading a whole book, though Kolbert is an engaging writer and I found her book to be a quick read. And below, some graphic illustrations from LiveScience. Fascinating stuff.

Here in the USA, alas, we seem to be helping the extinction of our own kind along by viewing diversity among people as dangerous. Compound this with a society that permits the ownership, hoarding, and use of deadly weapons on others and which cultivates a cultural tone of fear, anxiety, and entitlement, and there is strong evidence that the human weed will continue the slow but decided progress of the Holocene extinction.

Chart of extinction events that wiped out most life on Earth.