Poets rise up against eco-Armageddon
Earth Shattering is the first anthology to include the full spectrum of eco-poetry, from the wilderness poetry of ancient China to 21st-century Native American poetry. It puts Neil Astley, the editor and founder of Bloodaxe Books, right up there with the great anthologists, writes Penny Cole.
Neil Astley’s previous anthologies – Staying Alive (real poems for unreal times) and its sequel Being Alive, were a counter-attack against a world humming with empty images. They have become irreplaceable collections of poetry that struggle for, and aspire to, life and true meaning.
He has again captured the concerns and spirit of the times, with poems tracking the impact of humans on their world, from the destruction of the buffalo herds to the enclosures of the common land; the pollution of the rivers and seas to the pollution of society with private profit and colonialism; the extinction of species and the creation of poisonous cities where wilderness once stood. And of course the changing, shifting, climate.
Eco-poetry is not nature poetry. Rather than admiring and romancing the natural world, it attempts to record and explain the increasingly troubled relationship of human beings with nature. Poets have reflected on this over the centuries with a growing sense of despair. Eco-poetry recognises the great web of life, and human beings’ increasingly alienated relationship to it.
Earth Shattering lines up a chorus of over 200 poems addressing environmental destruction and ecological imbalance. But it is a meditation as well as an anthology, bringing together not only poems, but also essays, speeches and thoughts from earliest times, from poets, thinkers, leaders and indigenous peoples through the centuries and up to the present day.
From its opening sequence, entitled Rooted in Nature, the book charts an eloquent path from a time when humans were just beginning to commentate on nature as if from the outside, through to today’s poetry of mourning and regret for the results of that alienated relationship.
A group of 7th century Chinese “wilderness poems” create a charmed sense of the modest human in the landscape, but already aware of the difference between city and country, society and landscape. In Home again among fields and gardens, T’ao Ch’ien, rejoices at returning home:
Nothing like all the others, even as a child,
rooted in such love for hills and mountains,
I stumbled into their net of dust, that one
departure a blunder lasting thirteen years
But a tethered bird longs for its old forest,
and a pond fish its deep waters – so now,
my southern outlands cleared, I nurture
simplicity among these fields and gardens,
home again. I’ve got nearly two acres here,
and four or five rooms in this thatch hut,
elms and willows shading the eaves in back,
and in front, peach and plum spread wide.
Villages lost across mist-and-haze distances,
kitchen smoke drifting wide-open country,
dogs bark deep among back roads out here,
and roosters crow from mulberry treetops.
No confusion within these gates, no dust,
my empty home harbours idleness to spare.
Back again: after so long caged in that trap,
I’ve returned to occurrence coming of itself.
And the astonishingly contemporary Spring Prospect by Tu Fu, who lived from 712-720 AD:
The nation shattered, mountains and rivers remain;
City in spring, grass and trees burgeoning.
Feeling the times, blossoms draw tears;
Hating separation, birds alarm the heart.
Beacon fires three months in succession,
A letter from home worth ten thousand in gold.
White hairs, fewer for the scratching,
Soon too few to hold a hairpin up.
There are poems by John Clare – the 17th century poet of the enclosures of common land that accompanied England’s first agrarian revolution including Round Oak and Eastwell:
In my own native field two fountains run
All desolate and naked to the sun;
The fell destroyer’s hand hath reft their side
Of every tree that hid and beautified
Their shallow waters…
and The Moors:
...Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers,
Is faded all – a hope that blossomed free,
And hath been once, no more shall ever be.
Enclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave,
And memory’s pride, ere want to wealth did bow,
Is both the shadow and the substance now,...
And from amongst some great contemporary poems, the English scientist and poet Mario Petrucci’s long poem about Chernobyl stands out:
“Take our words. Enrich them.
They are already active – but enrich them.
…you will forge from our cries a single silver rod.
You will put it on display behind a screen.
….One night – in early darkness. When you are
thinking of something else. It will escape.”
A group of poems fall under the heading “Exploitation” and challenge the concepts of ownership, utility and empire, as in Margaret Atwood’s The Moment:
The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,
is the same moment the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can’t breathe...
Derek Walcott meditates on the alienation of both nature and language resulting from colonialism in an extract from the long poem Schooner:
...Once the sound ‘cypress’ used to make more sense
than the green ‘casuarinas’, though, to the wind
whatever grief bent them was all the same,
since they were trees with nothing else in mind
but heavenly leaping or to guard a grave;
but we live like our names and you would have
to be colonial to know the difference,
to know the pain of history words contain,
to love those trees with an inferior love...
Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Ogoni! Ogoni! is included:
Ogoni is the land
The people, Ogoni
The agony of trees dying
In ancestral farmlands
Stream polluted weeping
Filth into murky rivers
it is the poisoned air
Coursing the luckless lungs
Of dying children
Ogoni is the dream
Breaking the looping chain
Around the drooping neck of a shell-shocked land
And in a poem about another Estuary, the Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Findlay navigates the River Forth in capital letters until he arrives at Grangemouth:
There is an overwhelming sense of the shared guilt of human beings. Wendell Berry speaks of them “dark with power, we remain the invaders of our own land, leaving deserts where forests were”, and Theodore Roethke remembers loosening carpets of green moss when a boy “and afterwards I always felt mean, jogging back over the logging road, as if I had broken the natural order of things…” There is sorrow for lost animals, lost cities, lost trees and poisoned seas.
Rainer Maria Rilke mourns the caged life of the panther in the zoo: “It seems to him there are a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.” Andrew Motion misses the disappeared house sparrow, that “country clubber, barn bounder, hedgerow flasher, bran dipper, puddle bather, dust bowler, stubble scrounger, dew nibbler creeper sleeper, dung dobbler”. The cries of Blue and Grey Whales are heard along with glimpses of foxes and the Dodo’s funny, lost face.
The book is rich with love and longing. The poems are crammed on to the pages, suggesting an overwhelming desire to leave nothing out, to give every creature, landscape and plant its voice, for once. No loss is undescribed, no crime goes unreported. The result is a book that is quite hard to navigate, but has something good on almost every page.
But what is missing from the collection – an absence that generates an almost physical ache – is poetry suggesting a way forward. The human, being the source of the problem, cannot offer the solution it seems. Seamus Heaney’s call for “poetry strong enough to help” is interpreted only as warning. The utopian spirit is almost entirely absent.
Derek Walcott has said that: “A culture, we all know, is made by its cities.” More than half of humans now live in cities, and so nature today is the city and its hinterland, every bit as much as the rural or the wilderness. The city therefore has to be the key to a poetic imagining of an answer to the problem of the human in the natural landscape.
Poems about cities are included, but as traps, to be escaped from, to arrive at something better beyond the city limits. To be free is to be “released from forms, from the perpendiculars, straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds of thought” (A.R. Ammon’s Corsons inlet). Or as in Denise Levertov’s Those who want out, it is a terrible and manufactured place where humans desire the unnatural life:
...Imagine it, they think
way out there, outside of ‘nature’, unhampered,
a place contrived by man, supreme
triumph of reason. They know it will happen.
They do not love the earth.
Beyond the city is something wild and unfettered, as in G.F. Dutton’s the high flats at Craigton:
the high flats at Craigton stand
rawboned in a raw land,
washed by thunderstorm and sun
and cloud shadows rolling on
from the bare hills behind, each one
out-staring the wind;
that every night
cling together and tremble with light.
Perhaps out there, somewhere, in some country, a new urban poet is imagining a future city as a place of pleasure and calm function; part of a delicate eco-system – rather than the opposite of nature in the shape of “a machine for living”. And this city has to be a real city, the kind people live in from Nairobi to Mexico, Mumbai to Sydney – but poetically transformed into a kind of paradise.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Bloodaxe Book, and this collection is yet another example of its valiant battle on behalf of poetry, with a belief that it can make a difference.
Just as the cover notes say: “As the world’s politicians and corporations orchestrate our headlong rush towards Eco-Armageddon, poetry may seem like a hopeless gesture. But its power is in the detail, in the force of each individual poem, in every poem’s effect on every reader. And anyone whose resolve is stirred will strengthen the collective call for change.”Earth Shattering – ecopoems edited by Neil Astley. Bloodaxe Books £9.99