Posted: Date Posted – 12:50 AM, Thursday – 10 Nov 22
By Pramod K Nayar
It often happens that disasters, real and imagined, often appear as long works of prose. Dystopian fiction has always thrived on it with images of post-apocalyptic earth, surviving humans, and strange weather. Octavia Butler, JG Ballard, Maggie Gee, Margaret Atwood, Stephen Baxter… the list of novels by literary and popular writers is very long. But what of other genres seeking to communicate the same sense of planetary precariousness? Can a very minimalist language, as in poetry, capture the sublimity of planetary destruction?
We know that the English Romantics spent a lot of time – and words – describing nature, mostly idealizing it. The tradition of such poetry, noted critics like Jonathan Bate and Lawrence Buell, goes back to the early modern period in many cultures. But climate change itself slipped into reality and poetry much later, and so on the 20e and 21st poet of the century has learned to deal with this crisis.
Poetry and uncertain cultures
In Matthew Hollis’ poem, “Causeway”, he describes the sea as “unwatched but hunting”, although he does not specify what it hunts. In the next line, Hollis writes: “our license file, unlikely to be renewed”. As the sea prepares to chase us away, we begin to recognize that we are short-term residents on land, our permit to linger is time-stamped, and we probably won’t get an extension.
The feeling that something is approaching pervades Alice Oswald’s “Vertigo”. The poem is ostensibly about rain, but Oswald gives it strong symbolic value:
When something not yet nothing changes my mind like me
And starts to fall
In the wee hours
every drop is a quick decision
A suicide from the tower of paradise
When the poem ends, the feeling of foreboding is amplified:
I feel them in my bones these dead straight lines
Getting closer and closer to my heart
In Seamus Heaney’s “Höfn,” locals watching melting glaciers ask:
What shall we do, they ask, when the milt of the rocks
Come wallow through the flats of the delta
And the kilometer-deep long-haired ice is making its way?
It is the textual anticipation of a catastrophe to come, and it is a poetic current on the climate crisis (such poetic prophecies recall, in a completely different context, William Stafford’s minimalist poem, “At the Bomb Testing Site”, where a “panting lizard” waits for something to happen).
Extinction by other names
Critic Ursula Heise argues in her book imagine extinction that “biodiversity, endangered species and extinction are first and foremost cultural questions, questions about what we value and the stories we tell, and only secondarily scientific questions”. So when we create a discourse around specific species – which are “endangered” – we create a hierarchy of values. It is this hierarchy that Jackie Kay questions in “Extinction”.
Kay’s poem reads like a catalog of endangered life forms. Beginning with “We have closed the borders, friends, we have succeeded”, Kay describes the current scenario:
No trees, no plants, no immigrants.
No foreign nurses, no doctors; we broke it.
No birds, no bees, no HIV, no Poles, no pollen.
No pandas, no polar bears, no ice cream, no dice.
But this is not a list of endangered species. It is also a list of those over which the state wishes to assert its control, or even extinguish it:
No Greens, no Brussels, no vegetarians, no lesbians.
No carbon reduction, no CO2 questions.
No crazy lefties, please. No politically correct courses.
No class. No Guardian readers. No readers.
Kay is not talking about rising ocean waters but about the rising tides of totalitarianism. The poem ends with:
We closed it! No immigrants, no immigrants.
No whiny-recycling-global warming crackpots.
Little man, little woman, the world is a dangerous place.
Now pour me a pint, honey. Get out of my fracking face.
The world is apparently dangerous because of goofy leftists, immigrants, and environmental “crackpots”.
Sometimes there is extinction not by excess but by scarcity. In ‘X’ by Imtiaz Dharker, a woman searches for a bucket of water. She said to herself :
Don’t waste a drop.
As the cops whistle her to stop, she now thinks to herself:
To run. Do not stop. Don’t slip.
Such a shortage has arisen because we have not bothered to pay attention to how we have used resources. Peter Fallon’s “Late Sentinels” bluntly states:
Like there’s no end to the abundance
we plundered the earth.
Lachlan Mackinnon’s “California Dreaming” echoes Fallon:
The waste was all ours
Another Ice Age could be coming, Mackinnon implies, and yet humans are looking for hope:
When the last clouds
extinct wagon train,
loincloth and invocation will be
the last hope
woman and last man discovering
she is pregnant.
The continuity of the human race, above all else, is our concern, MacKinnon implies.
Poetics of climate change
A focus on the natural world in depicting birds and bees as we have seen in the examples above, allows the poet to communicate a sense of what is at stake. Poetic form and its conventions, language, are central to how we to imagine extinction. This is why pastoral forms inform much of this poetry, as can be seen in the work of Irish poets James Hewitt and Maya Cannon, and become a device to point to the disappearing grasslands (or forests or glaciers). slowly.
Poetry emphasizes the material world, the connections between species, which are material, and the incurable or already suffered losses. Cannon writes of the supposedly routine life of bees:
As much as their hunt for sweetness
or their accessory work, fertilizing the world
fragrant flowers with a thousand colors
bear fruit for all creatures on earth and in the air,
it’s part of their life…
Cannon speaks here of cross-species connections, mutual dependence, and what critic Stacy Alaimo calls “transcorporality.” Even poets not known for addressing climate change have noted how humanity is intertwined with other species and worlds. This is John Ashberry:
Yet I can’t escape the image
Of my little me in this bench of flowers:
My head among the flamboyant phlox
Looked like a gigantic, pale mushroom.
Ashberry highlights human insignificance, even clumsy presence, on the vegetal surface of the earth.
Poetry gives climate change a name and a form to allow us to assimilate the crisis, to recognize its contours, even to understand, in a more acceptable language, the Science of climate change.
As the dark times of drastic climate change approach, poetry is, as playwright Brecht put it, the song of dark times. Except the song will be of the dark times themselves. Like Craig Santos Perez’s conclusion to “Thirteen Ways to Look at a Glacier”:
It was summer all winter.
He was melting
And it was going to melt.
The glacier adapts
In our warm hands.