From the first cave paintings to hieroglyphics—from Beowulf to the Bible—from Shakespeare to Blake to Hopkins to Dickinson, from Whitman to Bishop to Mary Oliver—poets have always written about animals.
But a growing ecological consciousness, coupled with greater understanding of animal minds and emotional lives, has led some writers to begin paying closer attention to how and why we write about animals. What does it mean for an animal to be the subject of a poem? How have 21st-century discoveries about animal consciousness informed poets’ work? What does it mean to authentically engage animality in a poem?
Our anthology THE NEW SENT(I)ENCE seeks to explore the ways that “animal poems” have changed over time, look at different ways that poets and poems meaningfully engage with animals, and discuss why poets may have a special calling for work that addresses “our most othered Other.”
About Our Title
The title of our anthology, THE NEW SENT(I)ENCE, is a nod to two events.
1: It gestures toward the collection of critical essays, The New Sentence, published in 1987 by poet Ron Silliman, in which he described the emergence of a new type of experimental writing whose modes and devices, especially at the level of the sentence, were particularly interested in facilitating ambiguity, polysemy, and “an exploration and articulation of the hidden capacities of the blank space (parataxis).”
2: It refers to a recent re-visioning and understanding of animal sentience, with sentience defined as the capacity to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively— including the ability to experience pleasure and suffering.
The Animal as Literary Blank Space
Historically, animals in Western literature have themselves constituted a blank space. Even when presented as the ostensible subject of a poem or story, animals in Western literature have overwhelmingly functioned as symbols, metaphors, and props, tabula rasa onto which to project our human dramas, or they have figured as so much anonymous, nostalgic scenery prettifying the backdrop.
As such, they can be seen as the literary equivalent of “the absent referent,” a term coined by ecofeminist Carol Adams in her seminal text The Sexual Politics of Meat to refer to the way that “meat” and other animal products both visually and conceptually erase the once-living being they were. “The function of the absent referent is to keep our “meat” separated from any idea that she or he was once an animal, to keep something from being seen as having been someone, to allow for the moral abandonment of another being.”
Whether fetishized as disembodied parts artfully arranged on a plate, or aestheticized into scripted stand-ins for human emotion and predicament, the animals we engage with are not in the main the individual animals themselves, but consumable symbols denuded of subjectivity, vitality, and agency.
Why ‘New’ Sentience—and Why Now?
Western culture’s literary erasure of animals is an artifact of both the Cartesian view that portrayed animals as homogenous, unfeeling machines, and the longstanding religious emphasis on human dominionism: the doctrine that human beings are divinely sanctioned as superior to nonhuman animals, and that, in the spirit of might makes right, we are entitled to do with and to them whatever we wish.
This long unchallenged view of nonhuman animals as un-self-aware, unsuffering, and unemotional non-agents has only been recently and unequivocally put to rest by the scientific community— most notably in July of 2012 when a prominent group of international neuroscientists gathered at The University of Cambridge “to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience in human and non-human animals.”
In a public statement and report entitled The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, published on July 7, 2012, they concluded:
“Evidence that human and non-human animal emotional feelings arise from homologous subcortical brain networks provide compelling evidence for evolutionarily shared primal affective qualia. We thus declare the following: The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”
A ‘New Sentence’ to Fill the Animal Blank Space in Poetry
Alongside such benchmark acknowledgments of animal consciousness in the scientific community, the growing field of animal studies continues to evolve across a wide range of academic disciplines, including the humanities. As critical scholarship into human-animal relations, animal ethics, posthumanism, speciesism and anthrozoology advances our understanding of the experiential life of non-human animals, poetry becomes a vital tool for rehabilitating the literary blank space of the animal with a “new sentence” that meaningfully engages animals as autonomous and emotional subjects, and that explores animal life with curiosity, empathy, and humility.
This belief—that we need to reckon with our too-limited construct of “the animal” in life and in literature—is the catalyst behind our anthology.
“I was unspeakable so I ran into the language of others” is Kathy Acker.