Phytopoetics: The Metamorphic Impact of Plants on the Imagination
Phytopoetics, derived from phyto = plant and poiesis = making, is the idea that plants impact the human imagination. This can take many forms, but as a scholar of literary and cultural studies, I focus on plants shaping literature and culture (see the Literary and Cultural Plant Studies Network and especially its extensive plant studies bibliography). Whether this means that plants co-construct poetry (see John Ryan’s work on ecopoetics) or inscribe themselves into art (see Patrícia Vieira’s work on phytographia), the resulting artworks, texts, or ideas derive from both human and plant agency. In the cases I study in German literature, the human imagination often takes over and ascribes ideas to plants that may not be accurate but still originated with plants. Finding out more about plant reproduction, for instance, led to worries about vegetal eroticism corrupting human sexuality, and our destruction of the planet inspired notions of vegetal violence—or plants striking back (for more details about these two ideas, see my work on phytopoetics here, for instance). Such examples of phytopoetics account for plant agency, even if it is fictionalized in the process, and these ideas often take on a life of their own, in turn inspiring policies, emotions, and ways of interacting with plants. The aforementioned anxieties about plants corrupting humans with their sexual variety, for instance, led to worries about women studying botany in eighteenth-century England and were part of the reason for curricular censorship of botanical topics in German schools around 1900.
A particularly impactful juncture of phytopoetic shaping and being shaped is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Metamorphosis of Plants. Even though some of the conclusions in this late eighteenth/early nineteenth-century text are botanically untenable today and the poem that precedes it anthropomorphizes plants through metaphor and allegory, the ways plants impacted Goethe and his writing have, in turn, shaped human ideas about plants for centuries to come. As a touchstone for plant studies, the text combines what is today separated into the literary arts and the natural sciences. This seamless interdisciplinarity allows Goethe’s thoughts about plants to show their manifold phytopoetic dimensions: be it the famous underlying concept that ‘everything is leaf,’ or—what immediately grips me—the vegetal eroticism of the poem in which plants are married by the god Hymen and reproduce with the help of Amor. In these phytopoetic moments, plants take on imaginative dimensions that are inspired by but go beyond their biology—drawing attention both to their ways of being and their potential. Imagination is a key driver of increasing our still limited knowledge about vegetal life forms and finding ways of living more respectfully with each other. Arguably, even Goethe’s methodology is all about the imagination, and his notion of metamorphic transformation makes space for a multitude of shapes that plants, and nature writ large, can take outside of and in human minds. By bringing together the realm of the arts and the sciences, the Metamorphosis of Plants centers both the botanical and the poetic potential of plants, and in doing so, it has paved the way for plant studies in our own time.