A year ago I had a conversation with a friend – a Green Party activist – keen to enlist poetry in the service of environmentalism. It is a complex topic, and I’m not sure I was much help. How does one best influence people to act in ways which create space for other life and guarantee humans a future? Art, even at times ‘high art’, has in the past played a role in bringing about political change – think for instance of Verdi’s operas. But what can poetry hope to achieve today in the face of climate change?
I’m conflicted. The kind of poetry which most interests me doesn’t lend itself to ‘causes’ in any straightforward way. What I look for in poetry is an experience which opens me to the world, which returns me to a sense of possibility. As Marjorie Perloff puts it:
Truth is not something that can be uncovered; it can only be re-discovered , day after day. The value of breaking through the dead rubble each morning and in viewing each object from as many angles as possible is that one keeps one’s mind open, that conclusions are always tentative, and that the process of discovery is always more important than any particular end result. (See: “But isn’t the same at least the same?”: Translatability in Wittgenstein, Duchamp, and Jacques Roubaud.)
In our era of ‘super-modernity’, rife with information overload, complex political issues become reduced to soundbites and slogans, and campaigns are designed to manipulate. I worked in charity marketing for many years and daily confronted the tensions around the oversimplifying of complex realities in the drive to create effective advertising copy.
Scientists face similar challenges when engaging with social and political debates. Science is speculative, experimental. As evidence builds, the probability of hypothesis A being a good fit with the data increases or decreases. There are no certainties. In the bear pit of politics nuance and qualification are the first casualties – ‘truthfulness’ suffers. This is not a milieu in which poetry or science sit comfortably.
So how might poetry engage while staying free of the bear pit? Perhaps poetry has different kinds of contributions to make to the cause of environmental justice. There are activist poets who speak to an explicit agenda. Take, for example, the work of John Kinsella, whose latest collection, The Wound, I recently reviewed. Kinsella sees poetry as a major mode of resistance. What I experience in Kinsella’s work is his anger, sadness and frustration about the events he writes about, feelings I can identify with. But his poetry doesn’t return me to a sense of openness before the world, to an experience of why all this matters.
A different kind of contribution, one to which I more readily relate, might be something along the lines suggested by the poet Peter Larkin, who says:
I suppose I’m not very optimistic that writing can do much to turn round the appalling environmental degradation that we are already well advanced into, except to help stiffen the opposition that already exists in other domains. Imagination per se is never going to be a form of dominance, not even a corrective one, but as something actively seeking assent and as a different way of being in the world it offers re-orientation in the midst of a damaged planet. (Interview with Matthew Hall, published in Cordite Review.)