Culture column: reflections on eco-poetry

29 April 2022 

At COP26 I was handed a booklet with a bright yellow cover and the title “Future Anterior – COP(oety)26.” It was a little collection of eco-poetry, collected by the University of Warwick’s Centre for Ecopoetics. 

On one of the many train rides between Glasgow and Edinburgh, I pulled it out and read it from cover to cover. In its introduction it asked the question: “climate chaos makes us crazy with tension between the urgency of NOW and a distant, hard to imagine future: can poetry’s time-bending practices help us to inhabit this tension?”

Poetry has long been a tool to express emotion and beauty, which nature fits in seamlessly with. Many of us would have read nature-themed poems in primary school, such as Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” which made daffodils come to life. Japanese Haïkus often use descriptions of the natural world to create gentle descriptions of the everyday. 

I have a tendency to read poetry too quickly, while it’s an art form that asks for reflection and careful consideration. I was lent Mary Oliver’s collection “A Thousand Mornings: Poems” and her captivating descriptions of nature allowed me to relate to her words in the poem “At The Great Pond”: “I will look back/ into the lost morning/ in which I am moving, now, / like a swimmer,/ so smoothly,/ so peacefully,/ I am almost the lily”. She wrote that “attention is the beginning of devotion” – nature poetry helps us appreciate and care for the natural world.

Poetry is also now going beyond descriptions and appreciation of nature but serves as a vehicle for our growing anxiety and fear of the climate crisis, of environmental degradation, loss and humanity’s relationship to it: eco-poetry. 

Carl Dennis’ poem “The Greenhouse Effect” dates back to 1985 and its words are still relevant: “Life will be different, good tillable land so dear / The suburbs will give way to farms, the cities / Fill up again with people too poor to own cars”. In Linda France’s poem “Nature-based Solutions”, part of the Ginko Prize 2020 Ecopoetry Anthology, she relates her reflections after watching a webinar on climate change: “In this window / to act, he calls it, a positive inflection point, I try to think / of a single thing that isn’t based within nature – /  if that means part of us all and where we live, us / humans and our fellow creatures, flowers and trees,/ moss and mushrooms, not forgetting lichen, the dirt / under my fingernails, invisible flora blooming / in my gut”. Her words help to situate us and articulate an emotional understanding of man’s place in nature.

There’s the explicitly political and the explicitly personal. In this search for eco-poetry, I picked up Jane Hirschfeild’s poetry anthology “Ledger”. In this book, she threaded together poems that spoke of nature and that spoke of her personal life, some of both. In doing so, she created a feeling of grief that transcended the page. Grief at what might have been: “Evolution might have turned left at the / corner and gone down another street / entirely” (from the poem “Day beginning with seeing the international space station and a full moon over the gulf of mexico and all its invisible fishes”); grief at what is ““Now it was only the rivers / that spoke of the rivers, / and only the wind that spoke of its bees” (from the poem “On the Fifth Day”); grief at what might come: “Today, for some, a universe will vanish / First noisily, / then just another silence // The silence of after, once the theatre / has emptied” (from the poem “Today, Another Universe”).

I’ve been reading this poetry in 2022 but just before COP26, in October 2021, I had been fortunate enough to visit an old friend in Copenhagen. 

Together we went to the National Gallery of Denmark where an exhibition on women and the arts used the quote: “Art prompts emotions, emotions prompt action”. This statement came from Nouha Albrecht, a volunteer for Mødrehjælpen (Mother’s Relief), and it stuck with me through my time at COP, and beyond, as I pinned it above my desk. 

Poetry is an art form that does just that – poetry plays with emotions, molds them and breaks them too, and can leave us with no choice but to act.

By Chloé ten Brink 

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