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“Something large and old awoke”: Ecopoetics and Compassion in Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water

Ecopoetry has often been limited to poems that romanticize and praise the natural world. However, literary critics are beginning to recognize that ecopoetics goes beyond the pastoral and includes poetry that promotes environmental justice. Contemporary scholars of Black nature poetry, including Angela Hume, Camille Dungy, and Katherine R. Lynes have further expanded ecopoetics of environmental justice, articulating a theory of what Lynes calls “African American reclamation ecopoetics,” which refers to poetry that is cognizant of the structural oppressions that connect damage to the environment with ongoing racial injustice and protests against all forms of injustice. Pulitzer Prize-winner and former Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s volume of poetry Wade in the Water connects racial injustice to environmental injustice, participating in the contemporary tradition of African American reclamation ecopoetics. Smith’s work also participates in an emerging discussion about the role of compassion in social movements, adding compassion as an element of her particular African American reclamation ecopoetics. Many prominent Black liberation theorists and activists, including bell hooks, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Charlene Carruthers, have noted the importance of compassion in movements for social justice, identifying a feeling for others that respects differences, motivates toward liberation for all, and does not shy away from reality as vital to any successful liberation movement. In the poems “Watershed,” “Wade in the Water,” and “An Old Story,” Smith writes with attention to damage done to both the environment and Black people in America, but her work counters these injustices with compassion, arguing that compassion is essential to undoing oppressive systems that create injustice and thus adding a new element to the African American reclamation ecopoetic tradition.

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Kaitlin Hoelzer


Kristin Matthews


Kaitlin Hoelzer

Type: Oral
Discipline: Humanities
Institution: Brigham Young University

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