The Poetry of Climate Change by Peter Leyland
Oikology - when we need to look after our home
In February last year I was preparing to teach a poetry course to my WEA students and I wrote this introduction. The course was cancelled after two sessions and I was left with a large file of unused poems. Never one to throw anything away and looking back over an extraordinary year it seemed an appropriate juncture for me to give the piece, if not the poems, to a wider audience.
“Record heat in world’s oceans is ‘dire’ warning on climate crisis.” This was a newspaper headline recently and as I write there is a meeting in Davos, Switzerland, attended by American President, Donald Trump, and 17 year-old Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, whose book, No One is Too Small to Make a Difference, sits on my desk. Indeed, there is now so much information about the climate problem that it is difficult to pick out one particular aspect that should command our attention.
However, as this is a course about poetry, I will start with two lines from a poem by Keats:
‘The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.’
It was these lines from La Belle Dame sans Merci that gave the environmental researcher, Rachel Carson, the title for her book, Silent Spring, published in 1962. This was probably one of the first books to argue that environmental problems could be caused by the use of chemicals, in this case the impact of DDT on crop spraying in the USA. She had found through extensive research that the overuse of pesticides could have an effect on the decline in bird populations, contributing in her words to ‘the silencing of birds’. The book’s overarching theme was the effect humans can have on the natural world.
Carson predicted that in the future the pests targeted by DDT may develop a resistance to the pesticide. Some malaria programmes, for instance, were threatened by the increasing resistance of mosquitoes. She said that she was not calling for an outright ban on the substances but was advocating a reduction in the intensity of the spraying programmes or a biotic approach to pest control.
Predictably, chemical companies reacted to the book’s publication aggressively, criticising her credentials as having a training in marine biology rather than biochemistry. The US Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft, in Linda Lear’s biography, Witness for Nature (1997), was reported to have said in a letter that because she was unmarried despite being physically attractive, She was probably a communist. Nevertheless, her study changed public opinion and led to a nationwide ban on DDT for agricultural uses.
And yet today we are facing a major climate crisis because of the effect our activities are having on the natural world. In the introduction to the monumental The Ecopoetry Anthology (2013), editor Laura-Gray Street quotes from Sheryl St Germain’s Midnight Oil: “Let’s ask those responsible…// to walk deep out into the waters…// and then, / when they are thick and covered/with the stuff…// then / let them try to swim back // then /let them try to explain.” This is contrasted with ‘Blue Marble’, the famous photograph of earth taken from space by the Apollo 17 astronauts.
Robert Hass, a former American poet laureate, continues the introduction to the anthology He tells us about poets such as Gary Snyder in the 1950s writing about burning small, dead pine branches, about Wallace Stevens who meditated on the poetry of nature writing for much of his life, and about how the poetry of modernism went hand in hand with the new science of ecology which had developed from the cataloguing of Linnaeus and the discoveries of Darwin in the C19. The word ‘ecology’, Hass says, was derived from the Greek word oikos meaning ‘household’ and altered by the German biologist Ernst Heikl to become oikology. From this derivation earth’s biology appears to be very close to home.
T.S. Eliot is mentioned by Hass in relation to The Dry Salvages of the Four Quartets (1935-42), seeing a river as ‘a brown god’ that is now almost forgotten. It is interesting that our own Alice Oswald, although she claims she is not a nature poet, used the imagery of rivers in collections like Dart (2002) and her poem about The River Dunt in her collection Falling Awake (2016). It is interesting also that Hass refers to the aforementioned Rachel Carson and the number of Ecological Acts passed in America in the 1960s and 70s, such as The Wilderness Act (1964), The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act(1968) and The Endangered Species Act and the banning of DDT in 1973. Poet Gary Snyder wrote a book of essays and journals in 1969 entitled Earth House Hold. A member of The Beat Generation, Snyder moved his family to the Sierra foothills where he cleared land and built a house and meditation centre.
Wendell Berry is another poet who just like Snyder built a house and reclaimed land for farming. Berry wrote a book of essays, The Unsettling of America Culture and Agriculture (1977) which made him one of the country’s most influential thinkers. More and more Americans at this time were moving into cities and in this introduction Hass reminds us that two of the most important poets, Eliot and Whitman, in their heyday wrote poems about city living - Eliot’s The Waste Land and Whitman’s Song of Myself. Hass writes that ‘Whitman’s is a celebration of the abundance, diversity, fascination, and surprise of living in a city. Eliot’s is a vision of the city as a kind of hell where fertility has failed.’
Hass continues, saying that by 1988 the planet had experienced four of its hottest years. Attention had been drawn by scientists to the loss of plant and animal species. Countries like America, he says, were moving their industry further afield where labour was cheaper and regulations weaker. This created more global environmental problems. In The End of Nature (1989) environmental journalist Bill McKibben argued that nature as a force previously independent of human beings was now directly affected by their actions.
Hass goes on to say that essentially poetry has always been about nature, looking at ‘the cycle of birth, flourishing and death that renews all organic life’ and that, ‘Trying to relate to these cycles is probably the oldest impulse of the kind of utterance that come down to us as poetry.’ He suggests that popular forms such as the ode or elegy which sing praise to creative forces are persistent forms and in this sense are nature poetry.
As I am aware, both Wordsworth and Keats use the ode in their poetry. The former’s Ode To Intimations of Immortality is a philosophical statement about his pantheistic doctrine – the child comes to the earth trailing clouds of glory which gradually die away into ‘the light of common day’ and the poem is shot through with references to the problems of nature’s absence:
‘But there’s tree, of many, one,
A single field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that has gone:’
And Keats who in To Autumn taps into our acute awareness of the seasonal changes:
‘ To set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease
For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells.’
This awareness is even more true of Ode to a Nightingale where Keats equates approaching death with the nightingale’s fading song:
‘ thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ‘tis buried deep
In the next valley glades:’
The poet John Clare wrote in his journals about 147 species of British wild birds. He was a keen natural historian and, whereas Clare’s contemporaries like Keats and Shelley wrote about birds in a more symbolic sense, Clare knew exactly where they nested, how many eggs they laid and the details of their plumage. Dr Sara Houghton Walker of The Centre for John Clare studies says that Clare was intensely frustrated at not being able to transcribe the song of the nightingale, and wrote that ‘many of her notes are sounds that cannot be written the alphabet having no letters that can syllable the sounds’. This is from his poem, The Skylark:
‘…Then hangs a dust spot in the sunny skies,
And drops and drops, till in her nest she lies,
Which they unheeded passed – not dreaming then
That birds which flew so high would drop agen
To nests upon the ground, which anything
May come at to destroy…’
But returning to modernism, Robert Hass continues his introduction to The Ecopoetry Anthology by saying that in the early C20 in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird Wallace Stevens uses an imagist, haiku-like style to depict his subject:
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.’
Hass says that as the century proceeded poets began to sense the apocalyptic nature of climate change: ‘growing population, a rising tide of extinction amongst plant and animal species, the shrinkage of the last wild places that had harboured them, the acidification if the ocean, and the rapid spread of industrial technologies across the world.’ This, he says, brought a young 21st Century poet, D.A. Powell to produce a Georgic, a poem dealing with agricultural topics. Powell’s poem republic deals with the changing use of American land:
'soon industry and agriculture converged
and the combustion engine
sowed the dirt clod truck farms green
with onion tops and chicory'
It's lengthy but worth reading.
Hass ends his introduction by talking about two ‘gifted poets’, the American. Forest Gander, and the Australian, John Kinsella who have collaborated on a book called Redstart: An Ecological Poetics. Gander says that what we’ve perpetrated on our environment has certainly affected a poet’s means and materials. 'But can poetry be ecological?’ The anthology answers his question with a resounding affirmative.
I am also drawn to a recent interview in The Guardian with our own poet laureate, Simon Armitage, who has proposed a poetry prize called The Laurel which will go to the best collection of poems with nature and the environment at their heart that has the aim of highlighting the challenges facing our planet. He ends the interview by attaching a poem of his own on the subject.
I will conclude this blog by saying that Carol Ann Duffy, our previous poet laureate, also had an interest in climate change and she collected together a set of poems called Flight Risk in an edition of The Guardian Review last year. Her poem The Human Bee is worth reading in full:
Peter Leyland (Revised 2/02/2021)
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)
The Ecopoetry Anthology Ed. Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street (2013)
No One is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg (2018)
Flight Risk, The Guardian Saturday 27th April 2019, ed Carol Ann Duffy