(Edited version of a letter sent to Fiona Sampson in response to her so called ‘green issue’ of Poetry Review , which appeared in Spring 2008. This letter was neither published nor acknowledged.)
12th April 2008
Dear Fiona Sampson,
In your editorial for Poetry Review (Spring ’08) you ask: “What does a poetry which responds to ecological challenge look like? Pastoral won’t do… It’s simply faux nostalgia… Polemic, meanwhile, is one good way to murder a poem.” This generalisation about polemic disturbs me, and, as a practising ecopoet, I’d like to share both my own thoughts and those of some other ecologically-minded writers on the response that art and more specifically poetry can make to the crisis we’re currently facing here on Planet Earth.
With regard to climate change, Bill McKnibben writes in Grist Magazine (April 2005): “Here’s the paradox: if the scientists are right, we’re living through the biggest thing that’s happened since human civilization emerged…. But oddly, though we know about it, we don’t know about it. It hasn’t registered in our gut; it isn’t part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?”
The writer Robert MacFarlane has also bemoaned this cultural absence (The Guardian 24/09/05): “the deficiency of a creative response to climate change is increasingly visible” and suggests that any literary response “would need to find ways of imagining which remained honest to the scientific evidence. It might require, one would think, forms which are chronic – which unfold within time – and are therefore capable of registering change, and weighing its consequences. And it might require literary languages which are attentive to the creep of change; which practise a vigilance of attention and a precision of utterance…. But presumably there would be room too, for more bumptious vernaculars: for satire, say, or for polemic.”
MacFarlane intimates that diverse responses are necessary and amidst that diversity, he clearly points to a place for polemic. But should polemic be the preserve of stand-up comedians and ‘ranty’ performance poets? Certainly, many contemporary artists reject didacticism, as Ed Gillespie indicates in ‘Art for Earth’s Sake: Melting into the Mind’ (Green Futures Magazine, Spring ’06). Here he describes the work of a group of scientists, writers and artists exploring the Arctic on board the Noorderlicht, which has ventured into an area of previously ice-bound Arctic, where global warming has now rendered the sea navigable. David Buckland’s Ice Text projections – messages embedded into the crumbling ice sheets – have been one of several in-situ responses, and have subsequently been projected onto the façade of a London building above a seasonal ice-rink. But, Gillespie asks, “do these admittedly beautiful images with their curious phrasing (The Cold Library of Ice, Norwegian Blue: Arctic Canary) communicate climate change… – or are they just an aesthetically pleasing backdrop?” On board the Noorderlicht it appears many of the artists and writers are mistrustful of didactic art. Alex Hartley says it’s “bound to fail, as it becomes like advertising; if it’s too preachy or schooly it just won’t work”. And for Heather Ackroyd: “art must be a “psychic response: it must be lateral, not literal.”
And yet, in an age where advertising is in fact far from preachy – many companies employ psychologists to create all kinds of subliminal connections between brand names, products and human emotions – and where corporate media distortions and the short-term ambitions of politicians contribute to the mainstream climate of apathy and fear, surely there is a place, even a need, for skillfully polemical poetry and art to cut through the bunkum, to perceive Harold Pinter’s vision of ‘the vast tapestry of lies’ that surrounds us? (c.f. Pinter’s 2005 Nobel Lecture: Art, Truth & Politics.) Could it in fact be that we urgently require something far more potent than ‘lateral’ artistic responses to stir people… to rouse some from blind paralysis?
A poet who was able to tell it like it was and, with the lightest of touches, to stir the hearts and minds of many who heard or read his poetry was the great Pablo Neruda. Explico Algunas Cosas (I’m Explaining a Few Things), which must surely be one of his most moving poems, was written in Spain in 1936, shortly after the murder of his friend Federico García Lorca by Franco’s fascists. In it he appears to reject the poésie of his contemporaries to confront the horror of the Spanish civil war, but this he does firstly by invoking beauty – namely the everyday character of Arguelles, the Madrid suburb he’d known and loved – before unfolding scenes of warfare spilling through its streets. His poem concludes:
“And you will ask: why doesn’t his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land.
Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
the blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
in the streets!”
Clearly climate change as a specific ecological problem does not have the immediacy that war can have, particularly for those of us fortunate enough to be living in the West; nevertheless, its gravity and the slowness of the world’s response inspire a similar passion in me. Writing straight from the heart, I may at times embrace satire or a gently ironical polemic (though I hope I succeed in avoiding preachiness or rants). However, for this violation of current norms, I find that my poems are unlikely to be considered by Poetry Review.
Nevertheless I have continued to look more deeply at why so many contemporary artists and writers continue to flinch from exploring a more engaged response to the world’s problems. Having traced Western cultural histories over the past two centuries, I’ve discovered that the answer lies in part with the ongoing influence of the aesthetic movement – the degree to which many artists, perhaps unconsciously, still assume the position that Art and Life are separate, a philosophical position aided and abetted by Cartesian dualism and the cult of individualism that prevails today. And yet, historical context has always shaped art, while many artists and poets have themselves helped mould history… have been Shelley’s ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’.
Back in the 1940s George Orwell clearly believed that the division between Art and Life was based on a false premise. In his essay, ‘Why I Write’, he explains: “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is in itself a political attitude.” Were Orwell alive today, I imagine he’d echo a sentiment that activists often voice today: that those who aren’t part of the solution are part of the problem. I’d also like to think that he’d have integrated the insights of modern science – specifically quantum physics and Gaia theory – and would aver that an artist’s position of neutrality or Art/Life separation is now untenable.
It is increasingly obvious that we’re all inextricably woven into the web of life, and like all the biota on the surface of the Earth, we have the capacity to influence the self-regulating organism that is our planet. Even that lofty poetic ideal – the remote eye of the poet-observer – in fact has the capacity to affect the object it watches. Surely then, in recognizing this subtly influential role we humans have, a poet cannot help but acknowledge Grace Paley’s vivid sense that:
“It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman
to keep an eye on
this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be
listened to this time.”
I would like to end this letter by echoing and upholding Bill McKnibben’s words from Grist: “What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art. We can register what is happening with satellites and scientific instruments, but can we register it in our imaginations, the most sensitive of all our devices?”
Let us, as human beings and poets, now rise to the enormity of the collective challenge that faces homo sapiens in the twenty-first century. With our moral conscience may we hold in our hearts our wonderful capacity for self-awareness, and then take up our pens to send powerful messages into the world that we have recognized the truth that the corporate media and the politicians often hide from us, that we at least are unafraid to respond with wisdom, compassion and subtle craft. Then let our words do their work that our children may yet have a future on a richly biodiverse Planet Earth.