It is clear that the climate crisis challenges us to rise above the particulars of our situation and to plot some radically new routes forward. Without sacrificing any of poetry’s potency, is it unreasonable to also expect that the activities of the poetry world might directly mitigate actual damage, even in a very small way? One hopes that a closer and more direct partnership between poetry and environmental work is increasingly being cultivated. It is notable, however, that books themselves cannot do this extra work. Books can only be books, profound though their influence may be. To further explore ways forward we need to think of poetry more within a social context than a purely book-based one.
A poem is an artform which can be taken on board in its entirety and stored mentally. Memorising verse allows us to curate a secret library. Perhaps this ease of mental access makes it easy to forget that poems are also things – both in ordinary and extraordinary ways. Poems can simply be items to remember to pack in a suitcase. Or things you think about before you go to sleep. They can help memories retain important information or keep people calm in tense situations. They can be funny, can be written to mark significant occasions, and they can be products of friends spending time together. They can also be part of the toolkit of priests, teachers, politicians, and doctors. Poems should sometimes be thought of as things which have uses, because that is part of their nature.
‘The circle completes itself. If your own work’s good, and your relationships are good, others will bring readers to you. It’s a community.” Here Helena Nelson was discussing publishing and communication. In ‘Please Don’t Punch the Poets!’ (Silkscreen Press, 2020), Robin Cairns writes about his experience in running an open-mic night in Glasgow for well over 10 years. ‘We were both knocked out by the respect for everyone and the good humour, we felt like we belonged.’ That’s Kate Rex on page 116. Five pages later Carla Woodburn ‘Loved the place, felt so at home and welcome.’ Of course, anyone will feel at home when they find a group of likeminded people, perhaps playing football, or at a choir, but remember that poetry groups of all kinds form their bonds via the very individual and subjective business of responding to words and ideas.
Poetry connects people via their differences. And poetry has an important but undervalued social function. By articulating what this function is, we can more clearly analyse its potential to help, and surely responses to any crisis need to be judged by their potential to help. However, while it would be quite normal to expect a piece of music to do a job, e.g. in film, many poets are resistant to the idea of prescribing a use for what they do. Indeed some seem keen to head off any such desire before it has even been formed. In the introduction to ‘100 Poems to Save the Earth’, the editors say, ‘The reader might well ask how can poems save the earth? Certainly not by marching in step with political campaigns, diverting poetry’s meander into propaganda’s mill.’ This seems to be unnecessarily broad brush thinking, over-dismissive of any future productive collaboration between politics and poetry. The future of the earth is either something we have successfully defended before, or it calls for radical courage and a clear and determined sense of priorities.
Here, then, is a short list of what I consider poetry can do well. It is by no means exhaustive and I hope you can add to it. I’ve based it partly on experience, and also on an article on the Poetry Foundation website called ‘Does Poetry have a Social Function’ (Poetry, Jan 2007). The article takes the form of a series of answers to the question and responses to the answers by four US poets, Stephen/Stephanie Burt, Daisy Fried, Major Jackson (MJ) and Emily Warn (EW). It contains a lot of well-articulated and subtle points, as well as some quite amusing manoeuvring around the question as if it were a wet dog, or a nauseous child, and they were wary of what might happen next.
• create a social situation where fears and insecurities are ventilated and shared
• be a form of witness
• work as a medium which ‘dignifies individual speech and thought (MJ)
• be a ‘repository of cumulative experiences.’ (MJ)
• be a ‘space where we ‘purify’ language’ (MJ)
• ‘bind solitudes’ (EW)
• increase insight via self expression and resonance
I should not really be amused at the poets’ reservations about the subject of the question, as they are perfectly valid. But there is no harm done in such simple analysis, in my view, as long as it is remembered that this list necessarily contains distortions and represents both unnecessary and inadequate covering for poetry’s bountiful nakedness.
A good variety of groups exist in Scotland today which are based on creative use of words in various ways. There are poetry reading groups, poetry writing groups , writers’ groups, words and wellbeing groups as well as spoken word groups and events and poetry in performance and open mike groups. All such groups have the capacity to be both supportive and challenging and to promote resilience.
One of the serious trials posed by the climate crisis is to mental health, a need recognised by the World Health Organisation in June 2022, in particular with 5 recommendations for governments:
• integrate climate considerations with mental health programmes;
• integrate mental health support with climate action;
• build upon global commitments;
• develop community-based approaches to reduce vulnerabilities; and
• close the large funding gap that exists for mental health and psychosocial support.
There is much to be gained by furthering plans to set up many more groups based on creativity, self-expression and words – whatever you call them and however they are organised. All poetry based groups by their nature support self-expression and the desire to understand and be understood. And therefore all poetry groups have the capacity to help.
In a crisis it is essential to sustain wellbeing, and I hope I have shown how there is a role here for poetry both with people individually and with groups. The last kind of potential help I would like to mention is to bring poetry (and other arts groups) closer to environmental activity. With respect for Alice Oswald’s garden rake, poetry can be as portable as we can make it. Let’s have poet residencies on working farms and public parks, ecopoetry ceilidhs being live-streamed from kitchens or halls in all parts of Scotland. Let’s all become gardener poets and blend some useful but uninspiring task like litter picking or weeding with a poetry experience or event. We already have poetry walks – it would only be a small adjustment. I once bought a recipe book from the Rhynie Women artists’ collective, onto which was tied an old teacup, with sisal binder twine. It has now been sitting on my desk for at least 10 years and still seems to stand for unexplored potential in the familiar. We need more impetus, more environmental actions tied (as it were) with string onto poetry (or other arts) experiences. This might seem rather odd to some, but so is the conservative nature of much of the world of the arts rather odd. Creativity at the point of making, but often conservatism in the cultural structures. There isn’t a better time than now, even though so much vies for our collective attention, so much distracts us from coming together to help mend the future of our beloved earth in individual and collective ways.
- from ‘How long does it take to make the woods’ by Wendell Berry, in
The Thunder Mutters edited by A Oswald (Faber & Faber, 2005).
- Nelson, H (The Friday Poem in conversation with Helena Nelson) https://thefridaypoem.com/in-conversation-with-helena-nelson/
- Please don’t Punch the Poets, Cairns, R (Silkscreen Press, August 2020)
- Why mental health is a priority for action on climate change (World Health Authority, June 2022) https://www.who.int/news/item/03-06-2022-why-mental-health-is-a-priority-for-action-on-climate-change