Jumping the rails
It seems odd that web-searches consistently identify Albert Einstein as the most influential individual of the 20th century. Relativity, the photoelectric effect and mass-energy equivalence don’t feel like topics of direct relevance to the person in the fields or on the street. But there he is, ahead of Hitler, Mandela, Stalin and Gandhi (respectively in second, third, fourth and fifth place). Influencing what exactly? And how? So few of us have actually read his work (even in translation) or can easily follow the mathematics which represent his hypotheses with precision.
Surely an aspect of this influence is that Einstein’s work shifted our collective apprehension of reality – space and time are not absolute but situated – solids are not ‘solid’ – everything is relative. In a sense, Einstein’s insights are comparable to Hutton’s with respect to Deep Time. Reality as we understand it is reframed and must be reinterpreted. New forms of agency are created.
Using conventional late 19th century mathematics, Einstein broke and reframed reality as an assembly of phenomena and understandings: a ‘thing’. Prose could not have realised this shift so clearly. Einstein calculated ‘outside the box’. But any, even superficial, grasp of the import of this for the rest of us demands metaphor – thought experiments – imagination – speeding trains – feeling.
I believe the ethical and aesthetic challenges of anthropogenic climate change demand a paradigm shift as profound as Einstein’s disruption of the Newtonian universe. We must stop thinking in terms of Man and Nature, we must stop writing about the weather, indigenous fauna and flora or the economy as givens. We must wake up to the intimate entanglement of biophysical processes.
But consolidating paradigm shifts (like Einstein’s) requires a mix of rigour and creativity, precision and reticence: characteristics of both good poetry and good mathematics.
The Song Dynasty poet, Wei T’ai wrote that poetry ‘presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing but reticent about the feeling.’,
In the context of climate change poetry, it seems obvious that climate change is the thing. But what do/should/could we feel – and how does a poet present the thing whilst doing the audience the compliment of ONLY hinting at the feeling?
Anthropogenic Climate Change
Climate change happens. Even in the relatively short sprint of the last 66 million years, current scientific narratives describe hot, warm, cool and freezing periods with higher frequency oscillations in global temperature within each zone.
Prehistoric fluctuations are inferred to result from the interaction of astronomical and biophysical processes. We read this narrative in rocks and minerals using an inventory of ideas, techniques and practices broadly located within the domain of geology. Contemporary geology takes for granted that the planetary system is dynamic and climate is a key component of this dynamism.
What is different about the current episode of climate change is that it is being forced by organisms many of whom listen to poetry and some of whom do mathematics.
As the organisms responsible for fossil-fuel combustion and deforestation, humans have an individual and collective response-ability  different from other ‘actors’  in the biosphere: we are uniquely able to respond to this situation. We can already speak with confidence about the Anthropocene as a geological and world-cultural event even as we engage in debate as to start dates and who is to blame.  Accepting that we are deeply entangled in systems of affordance and dependency  with the rest of the biophysical world, only humans can be response-able for these anthropogenic forcings.
The Personal and the Global
I have been writing ‘seriously’ since I was 11 – over 50 years. All of my life, I have lived in an adjunct of a former imperial power which was the earliest adopter of fossil-fuel technologies for industrial use. For about 30 years, I worked in the offshore oil & gas industry in a range of field development and operational support roles.
My personal responsibility for anthropogenic climate change is not in question. I am entangled and I am implicated. Collectively ‘we’ have known about the inevitability of anthropogenic climate change since the beginning of the industrial revolution . Personally, my first discussions on the topic were in the mid-80s when I was analysing weather patterns in the East Shetland Basin as a post-graduate.
But – as the Chinese proverb says: To know and not to act is not to know. The question is how we connect responsible with response-able?
Like many others, part of my response over the last few years, has involved steps to mitigate my ongoing impact. Another element of that response has been to write & publish climate change poetry grounded in both lived-experience and our emerging inter-disciplinary understanding of the processes in which I am entangled.
My first-hand experiences of climate change denial, ignoring and awakening – and of some of the dependencies we have created for ourselves – provide an opportunity to make my poems personal. Reading and observation, analysis and debate shape the ‘news’ I’m trying to engage the audience with. Climate change poetry should be precise about the ‘thing’. The thing is climate CHANGE – not pollution, insecticide use or the trade in pangolins: though those too demand addressing. Being imprecise about the thing makes the problem unactionable: we feel overwhelmed trying to unfankle such a vague entanglement.
Poets have license. Poets are allowed to ‘flash their poetic license and wade in’ . But that license must, I think, be used with integrity and rigour and, in the case of climate change poetry, an understanding of the underlying science and socio-cultural processes. This, I believe, is why we need STEM poets. Poets with the literacies to engage with the emerging reality at a global and personal level and share ideas and insights in a response-able but undiplomatic way.
For the last 70 years, many have seized on W.H. Auden’s line ‘poetry changes nothing’ to promote the inefficacy of poetry as a form of activism. And yet the impact of poetic shrapnel such as ‘A man’s a man for aa that’ demonstrates the efficacy of poetry as a form which entangles humanity in ethical challenges to a far greater degree than other literary forms. It is an ancient and resilient form, specifically designed to be memorable, portable and performable. It is a creative form which pushes the boundaries of language and apprehension. But it has to be on topic.
So what isn’t Climate Change Poetry?
Climate change poetry is not simply:
• poetry with ‘rocks [rain, wind, waves, trees, bees …] in the vicinity’ .
• poetry about extreme weather events or nostalgia for changing habitats or extinct species (even homo sapiens).
• poetry grounded in romantic dystopias (or utopias)
• poetry of place – for place in this context is meaningless
• poetry of the moment – for the specific experience of ecosystems at a particular coordinate of space-time is self-centred.
Climate change poetry is grounded in the dynamics, entanglement and response-ability of human beings and their communities. In scientific terms, biophysical processes are meaningless. They simply happen. Only through the lens of sentient experience does life, death, suffering, loss, absence, opportunity have any salience – whether for humans or any other ‘critter’. Geo-science cannot tell us what to do…only how we might do it. The challenge of climate change poetry is to persuade us to know (apprehend) and invite us to care (engage). And, knowing, act.
A recent essay by Eveline Pye in the Glasgow Review of Books critically summarised the desiderata for effective climate change communication (including poetry) based on a range of sources.
In over-view, based on these sources, effective climate change communication ‘should’:
i) be clear, relevant and coherent
ii) not rely on evoking fear but should evoke positive emotions
iii) not be overly strident
iv) focus on past loss and restoration, near-term benefits and opportunities (rather than apocalyptic scenarios);
v) help overcome negative associations and poverty attributions associated with actions we want to encourage
In this context, effectiveness is synonymous with mobilising behaviours within the community which are consistent ‘with actions we want to encourage’. Which leads in turn to the question – who is the audience and what agency are ‘we’ willing to afford them?
Would effective climate change poetry for audiences in lower latitudes (which are forecast to be uninhabitably hot in 50 years) be different from poetry for audiences residing in less-seriously affected middle latitudes? Might middle-latitude poets encourage their audiences to remain in their home territories, struggling to mitigate and adapt to the effects of change? Might low-latitude poets encourage their audiences to get the hell out?
Whereas climate change is intrinsically global, its effects are differentiated and local – most severe in low and high latitudes, areas close to current sea-level, to niche species with a limited behavioural repertoire and range. So, are there not many climate change poetics – many ways of viewing this particular thing? Doesn’t one robust consensus of scientific knowledge demand multiple earnest poetic expressions, thought-experiments, metaphors?
There seems, to me, to be one key quality missing from the list above. Effective climate change communication must be sticky – catchy – memorable: it must entertain (in the original sense of ‘holding the audiences’ attention’).
In this respect, poetry (as opposed to prose) has a number of advantages:
1) Poetry invokes the heroically improbable (which is what this paradigm shift demands). To quote Tom Leonard – ‘if you dribble past five defenders, it isn’t called sheer prose.’
2) Poetry is invocative – it ‘invested itself with […] magical properties, and also took the form of spell, riddle, curse, blessing, incantation and prayer. For those atavistic reasons, poetry remains an invocatory form.’
3) Poetry is sticky – it is an oral/aural form traditionally designed (through metre and rhyme) to be memorable.
4) Poems tend to be comparatively short
5) Poets have license.
Slippery and invocatory as it is, poetry seems an ideal medium to represent, express and engage in inter-cultural and inter-generational discussions about climate change. The challenge is to ensure it informs and entertains, engages and sticks.
Pibroch, my current climate change project, is a poetry collection and spoken-word show exploring parallels between the Piper Alpha disaster and the climate emergency.
I wasn’t on Piper Alpha on 6th July 1988 but, from lived experience, recognise both episodes involving the need to escape a ‘burning platform’. In addition, both exhibit remarkable parallels in their entanglement with biophysical processes, technology and corporate behaviour. Both, I would say, have also been reported in diplomatic language that falls far short of the lived experience; language which is dispassionate, regulated and leading to recommendations which double-down on the current model of reality – more procedures, more engineering, more governance – rather than recognising, as Red Adair is reported to agree in the Cullen Report, that the only way to stop a fire (of this nature) is to deprive it of fuel.
In approaching this, I have tried to blend personal experience (and response-ability) with a rigorous engagement with the literature, the data and the testimonies of those with more direct experience of catastrophe.
Large or small – collection, epic or haiku – I believe these elements of global awareness, rigour with respect to detail and personal relevance are essential elements in creating climate change poetry which engages, informs and enables new forms of agency and action to be imagined and pursued. The rest is craft.
Anthropogenic climate change confronts human societies with ethical and existential dilemmas which each of us can either engage with or ignore. Ignoring is, I believe, unscientific and decadent: uncreative. But the synthesis of a new reality out of emergent understandings of mechanisms, interdependence and entanglement demands rigour and creativity, precision and reticence, science and lived-experience, empathy and objectivity.
Apprehensions of this new reality must be nurtured through metaphor which connects and engages individuals and communities, which is playful and synaesthetic.
To an extent, the audiences’ personal and political responses to this new apprehension remain a matter of personal agency and ethics. But society fails if the characteristics of this new reality are simply ignored. And with that failure will come massive degradation of ecosystems and great suffering for many of the critters in the biosphere.
Poetry, public and personal, is an effective form of activism. In the case of climate change poetry, the knack will be to ground that activism in an accessible, unsentimental vision of reality and to be canny in ensuring the story is told to a given audience in an entertaining and undiplomatic way.
John Bolland is a poet, writer and artist based in the North East of Scotland. His poetry and short fiction have been widely published in journals and anthologies. He blends a lifelong commitment to writing with scientific training and first-hand experience of the international oil & gas industry.
- Ian Hodder, Entangled – An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things, 2012
- A.C. Graham – Poets of the Late Tang, 2008
- Westerhold et al. An astronomically dated record of Earth’s climate and its predictability over the last 66 million years Science 2020 369 (6509)
- Donna Harraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, 2016
- Ian Hodder, Ibid. p91
- S. Lewis & M.A, Maslin, Defining the Anthropocene, Nature March 2015
- Ian Hodder. Ibid. p48
- C. Bonnieul & J-B Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene, 2017
- Mark Symmons – Private Communication
- W.H. Auden, Musee des Beaux Arts, 1938
- Patrick Corbett in conversation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xzs5YMhJiAk
- Donna Harroway, Ibid.
- Eveline Pye, Climate Change Poetry: Is it Effective?, The Glasgow Review of Books, January 2020
- Tom Leonard, 100 Differences Between Poetry and Prose, 2011
- Don Paterson, The Poem:Lyric, Sign, Metre 2018
- The Public Inquiry into the Piper Alpha Disaster Vol. 1 Section 9.49, HMSO 1990