Like many people I’ve been thinking more and more about climate change, inspired by the activism of Greta Thunberg and others. Recent poetry events like the 2018 Ginkgo Prize readings at Poetry in Aldeburgh (by the way, the 2019 Ginkgo Prize – “the world’s biggest ecopoetry prize” – has just launched) and the Autumn 2018 Climate Change issue of Magma poetry magazine have also provoked me to think about the ways poetry can be a force to move people to deeper ecological awareness. Even if poetry can’t really make anything happen (or can it?) if you’re reading and writing poetry and you’re concerned about climate change and the environment, it’s natural to want to see those concerns reflected in some way in poetry. That’s how I feel, in any case.
It’s also been on my mind because I went to a poetry open-mic a short while ago and heard a good number of poets performing their work in response to climate change. Without being mean, one thing that I noticed about the poems I heard is how easy it is to tip over into preaching, and sometimes poems become little more than a means of the poet telling the audience (or reader) what they already know. I am aware that I fall into this trap myself when I write about issues I care about, so I know it isn’t easy to write an engaging poem and not a ranting lecture.
So, how to get the tone right without turning people off? Some notes I made at the 2015 Aldeburgh Poetry Festival when I went to a talk (by poets Kim Addonizio, Choman Hardi, Tony Hoagland and Pedro Serano) about political poetry seem worth mentioning (is ecopoetry political poetry? I think it is). Here are some comments I jotted down:
a flat political poem is flatter than anything… you mustn’t be sentimental or polemical or overt… (PS)
don’t be self-congratulatory (TH)
James Joyce said a work of art is not meant to convince but to simply bring you into that moment (CH)
Although I find it rather preachy in places, Why Ecopoetry? by John Shoptaw (in Poetry January 2016) makes many excellent points. Shoptaw starts by simply stating what he believes ecopoetry is:
…an ecopoem needs to be environmental and it needs to be environmentalist. By environmental, I mean first that an ecopoem needs to be about the nonhuman natural world – wholly or partly, in some way or another, but really and not just figuratively.
Editors from the Magma Climate Change Issue insist that there is no ‘should’ about what a poem about climate change is, yet they confess to finding it a struggle to bring the issues they care about into their work:
Two of this issue’s three editors confess that though climate change preoccupies them, their poems mostly don’t show it and they feel guilty. Why the shyness, or lack of inspiration? Maybe poetry isn’t the best artistic medium… Maybe that’s a cop-out. Can the minds of the most imaginative dream us out of our ethical and emotional paralysis, in which case where does poetry fit?
You can decide the answer to the editors’ question yourself by reading poems from this issue and a selection of accompanying blogs here.
NB I’m editing this blog post here to mention an important comment made by poet Polly Atkin (see below in the comments section) which draws a distinction between an ecopoem and a climate change poem. There is thinking to be done about whether a climate change poem is a subset of ecopoetry, or something different, and whether climate change poetry might focus more on the human world than an ecopoem. I think I agree with Polly when she writes
But then I also think ecopoetry at its most powerful often centres on the relationality of the human to the wider nonhuman world.
One thing that’s stayed with me from this issue of Magma is a comment by political scientist and Editor of the journal Climate Policy, Joanna Depledge, who, quoting Edmund Burke, says:
Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do little.
Depledge goes on to say:
almost everything one does to lower one’s carbon footprint is good for one’s health, one’s budget and one’s morale.
This was something I quoted to my 18 year old son recently when he was feeling particularly despondent about the state of our world.
There’s more ecopoetry to read in The Guardian which recently published a new poem by Carol Ann Duffy and a collection of poems by different poets commissioned by her to celebrate “the beauty and variety of an insect world facing extinction.” You can read all of the poems here. And for more ideas about Climate Change poems, good reading is to be had on this page at The Poetry Society.
Finally, it’s just been announced that Simon Armitage is the UK’s new Poet Laureate. Will Gompertz, BBC Arts Editor, said on Twitter that the poet intends to make climate change a priority, quoting this poem that Armitage has written on the subject:
Please add your own appropriate links, poems, and suggestions for further reading in the comments section. I look forward to reading them!