Example poetry

How poetry can help us understand the urgency of the climate crisis

I discovered the poem of Ellen Bass, The birdsong from my patio, during the first confinement in the United Kingdom. My garden hedge was filled with sparrows that always seemed to be singing. I expected to see and hear them in this poem too and at first I did, “I’ve never heard so many songs, pure trills like crystal bells.” However, images of “acid rain”, “pesticides”, “contaminated insects” and “thin shell eggs” quickly set in. Instead of feeling happy, I left the poem tottering. What have we done to our birds? What have we done to our world?

Climate change is widely recognized as the biggest threat of the 21st century. As it gets worse we can wait each other increasing storms, heat waves, droughts and other extreme weather events, which threaten the survival of many on this planet. Politicians gathered in Glasgow at COP26 to discuss how they can work together to slow down and repair some of this damage.

People watching the conference probably know a lot about climate change but, as poet Jorie Graham suggests, they may not “feel” it. Environmental activists have started asking for help communicating the impact of the climate crisis to politicians and the public. In other words: helping people understand the impact of climate change so that they feel compelled to fight it.

In a meeting for the Guardian, poet Roger Robinson said that “poems are machines of empathy”. And research confirms it. A recent article, for example, discovered that poetry can increase empathy in readers and, therefore, can be an effective tool for conveying these urgent messages and changing behavior.

Feel the damage

Using things like imagery, metaphor, storytelling, and even white space, poetry has the power to make problems abstract or diffuse, like climate change, more real to readers. A poem can act as a witness to phenomena such as global warming or highlight the impact of climate change on particular animals or plants. For example, the sonnet of Gillian Clarke Glacier is witnessing the melting of the Greenland glacier and calling on science to correct what has happened since:

The century of waste
burned a hole in the sky above the pole.

The decline of elephants is mourned in Matthew Olzmann’s letter to someone who lives fifty years from now.
Craig Morrison / Shutterstock

Poems can also act as visions of the future in order to highlight the changes we can make in the present. For example, that of Matthew Olzmann Letter to someone who will live in fifty years talks about how someone living in a desolate future will think we hated our planet:

Most likely, you think we hated the elephant,
the golden toad, thylacine and all the variants
of whales harpooned or hacked to extinction.

It must seem like we’re trying to leave you nothing
but benzene, mercury, stomachs
seagulls billowing in jet fuel and plastic.

Olzmann emphasizes how our actions contrast sharply with what we actually think about these animals and the natural world. These are things we rejoice in, say we love, but treat with such contempt. that of Jane Hirshfield That they don’t say speaks similarly of how history will look at us and calls for change before it’s too late:

Let them not say: they did nothing.
We don’t have enough.

The poems of Olzmann and Hirshfield reveal a grim view of the future which, in turn, can inspire empathy and action in today’s readers.

Resistance and hope

There are also poems of resistance that push against capitalist systems that some argue continue to fuel the climate crisis. This can be seen in David Sergeant’s Language of change, which is written from the perspective of late capitalism as it decides whether to continue destroying the planet or change its ways.

A protester holds up a poster in front of smoky chimneys.
In David Sergeant’s Language of Change, he calls for resistance against polluting companies.
Joe seeing / Shutterstock

There are also those poems that try to reconcile hopelessness and hope and how we as humans have both loved and let down our world. Evening by Dorianne Laux is a powerful example as he notes the beauty and possibility that pierces the darkness of this dying planet:

We know that we are doomed,
made for, damned, and still
the light reaches us, falls
on our shoulders even now

Like most people, I have been aware of the climate crisis for years and have followed the advice on How can I help you. However, it was not until I read The birdsong from my patio that I felt the full emotional impact of climate change, followed by an urgent desire to act on a larger scale. Since reading this poem (and many more after), I have been looking for ways to mitigate the effects of climate change on my beloved birds, donated to environmental campaigns and started writing my own ecopoesis.

And I am not alone. Research suggests this empathy that drives this kind of action could be one of the key solutions to climate change. So take a poem, buy a (used) book. The world will thank you.

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