If, on returning home from holiday, you discovered your house on fire, would you search your bags for a poem about water? How can we bridge the gulf between titles like 100 Poems to Save the Earth and the reality of how things work? Alwyn Marriage, reviewing the book in 2021, said, “Every reader knows, of course, that the collection, inspiring as it may be, cannot do very much even to slightly alleviate the dire straits we are in.” But when the house is as vast, crowded and noisy as our shared earth – with scientists smelling smoke in the attic even as politicians hold their noses in denial – especially if this is the case, are poems about water such a bad idea?
Ecowriting, however it is defined, exists because there are physical problems within the biosphere. How can the least tangible artform have any impact? Or does ecopoetry not seek change? Is it poetry’s task instead, to simply be poetry, to take communication to places inaccessible to rhetoric? But surely in a crisis, does action not need to take precedence? What am I not seeing? I found myself going backwards and fortwards trying to approach these questions after recently attending Jim Carruth’s birthday launch of the final book in his Auchensale Trilogy. Still basking in the glow of what was a wonderful night of excellent live poetry, storytelling and good company, so welcome after peely-wally live streaming, I sat down and read just one poem – ‘MacIntyre’s Big Horse’. Straight away I realised I needed to face up to the questions which had been hanging around for too long.
So I belatedly began some research. At least five anthologies containing what might be named ecopoetry have been published in the last few years. They do not all claim that category, but without getting bogged down in the semantics of definitions, I wanted to find out what such poetry says and thinks about itself, as it soon became obvious that the texts I found had much in common with each other. In Antlers of Water (Canongate, 2020) Kathleen Jamie places her collection within the long tradition of Scottish nature writing, and states, “Our writers are fully cognisant of environmental crisis, they don’t pretend it’s not happening, but they are not prophets of doom.” Then the environmental credo of the book is stated plainly, “I would argue that simply insisting on our right to pay heed to natural landscapes and other non-human lifeforms amounts to an act of resistance to the forces of destruction. It doesn’t actually take much to be an eco-writer or a nature poet. It begins when you pay attention to the world, and to language, and strive to bring the two together.” This position is beautifully clear and simple, though it does little in itself to convey urgency, or seek change. That task is left to the selected writing, such as that of Gerry Loose, who, in the 21 lines of ‘After Amergin’, amply delivers both a sense of urgency and the information to accompany it,
“am salmon infested with lice
am the end of words
am burning teardrop”
Although the poem’s message is bleak, the writing is emotive and convincing, even though the very end of the poem opens a question about God, possibly weakening the overall footprint, possibly raising it to another level,
“who leaches the fecund topsoils
whose alibi is God
who stands at the edge
who holds back the typhoon.”
Out of Time, subtitled Poetry from the Climate Emergency (Valley Press, 2021) warms to its task like an Old Testament prophet who must make the people listen. An introductory essay identifies the urgent need to face up to the times. But to do so is to tread a profound and difficult path – to resist tides of distraction and denial and to see what is ahead, even before its reality is fully obvious. Poetry with its capacity for both seriousness and inventiveness may be the best companion of all for such a difficult journey. “We still need to convince everyone that all of this is actually happening”, says editor, Kate Simpson, as part of the weighty cargo of ecological facts which the introduction onboards. One particularly impressive inclusion, Caroline Bird’s ‘Morality Play’, manipulates reality itself, as our over-communicated interior/exterior world demands we all do on a daily basis.
still not convinced any of this is real.’ I said,
‘You mean climate change?’ She said, ‘No, the world. I’m
not sure the world is real.’’’
This is at the same time funny, disturbing and relevant, and so the surreal footwork continues through quick-changing dialogue and scenes. As a consequence, Bird can both reveal the plain, ‘I realised I didn’t care about anything else in the world but her’, and also the fantastic, ‘I turned my brain off and on again’, and often it is debatable which is which, as again is appropriate in our over-communicated online/offline world. The richness of variety is a great strength of this poem and this book. Indeed it must be said that in the face of widespread ignorance and denial about climate change, these books are excellent bearers of the bad news in ways which are engaging and arresting. The cumulative effect of reading all the poems is a changed mindset.
In the introduction to another recent anthology, the aforementioned ‘100 Poems to Save the Earth’, (Seren, 2021), editors Zoe Brigley and Kristian Evans explain, “Poetry invites us to fine-tune our senses, to pay attention, to feel more carefully the pulse of things.” They stress ‘attention’ as did Jamie. But I was disappointed in the introduction to read that the only words suggestive of action are used metaphorically, as, later, we are told that ‘These poems absorb the changes, compost the waste, redraw the maps and, full of trust, keep going.” Then the final sentence feels almost trite, “In fact it may be that poetry is exactly what we need to save the earth.” How can poems carry such expectations? Several use forms of words and structures associated with worship, such as ‘Prayer’ by Grahame Davies, ’Seabirds Blessing’ by Alice Oswald and ‘A New Song’ by Michael Symmons Roberts. Apart from the obvious spiritual relevance, these poems also demonstrate strong and reliable structures and language used to bearing the unbearable to ensure they come alive when read. Thus Erin Robinsong, in ‘Late Prayer’,
“ Let our joy repeated be power that spreads’,
while Gbenga Adesina praises the
“Glory of dark horses
inside their own
There is a tension between this spiritual/imaginative insight and the depressing facts. Several poems, such as Katrina Naomi’s ‘ The beach couldn’t be found’, bear witness to places which have been spoiled, and to waste. One or two poets can speak both powerfully and more generally, such as Dom Berry. At the end of ‘Threshold’ he says,
“So if we need to be shown our collective death to come back
in the very nick of time
to life, to our collective love,
to understand what it means to be human
let it be so.”
Something different is glimpsed in Alice Oswald’s editorial preface to a much earlier anthology, ‘101 poems for the planet’ (Faber & Faber, 2005.) Reviewing the book, Helena Nelson judged the preface ‘worthy of a review in itself.’ It certainly reveals the radical insight we have come to depend on from Oswald. She dedicates the book to the ‘dew’s harp’, and old Devon dialect word for the garden rake. She writes, ‘When you rake leaves for a couple of hours, you can hear right into the non-human world, it’s as if you and the trees had found a meeting point in the sound of the rake. This shows an openness both to nature and also to the limitations of the articulating mind. Of all the introductions and overviews I’ve read, Oswald’s is the only one which really grounds its comments in experiences gained from working within nature in the open air, and that is why her voice is always important.
Title from ‘How long does it take to make the woods’ by Wendell Berry, in The Thunder Mutters edited by A Oswald (Faber & Faber, 2005).
- Marriage, A (London Grip, Nov 14, 2021) https://www.serenbooks.com/productdisplay/100-poems-save-earth
- Antlers of Water (Canongate, August, 2020)
- Out of Time (Valley Press, July, 2021)
- 100 Poems to Save the Earth (Seren, June 2021)