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"I am the tragic mask" - Climate Poetry.


Words alone will not solve the climate crisis, but without greater attention to language we have little hope in responding with the requisite skill and speed.

Language is fossil poetry – R W Emerson.

“All talk and no action”, say some. “Just words”, say others. They have a point of course, but it’s belied by their choice of medium.

Last night we hosted Creative Responses to Climate Change with the preeminent but not exclusive role of words in mind; focussing on the efforts of distinguished poets grappling with climate change, punctuated by music and film.[i]

Poetry and blogging are the cheese and chalk of the written word. They could hardly be less alike, and I hesitate to use one to comment upon the other. Blog posts tend to be briskly written, linking to information and jumping on a bandwagon of opinion; they tend to feel light, and their quality is largely a function of their timeliness, which means they quickly become dated.

Poems tend to feel less time bound, evoking oblique and often sublime emotions. They also tend to feel heavy with significance even when light in expression, because the carefully chosen words carry the weight of diligent perspective.

Of course, like blog posts, poems can be really bad, but a good poem tends to be exquisitely indirect, and so reaches parts of us that are other mediums struggle to reach. I value this quality deeply partly through my experience of engaging with the work of Iain McGilchrist where it became clear to me that such intangible and immeasurable qualities are enormously important, but remain threatened by a culture that is increasingly explicit and instrumental in emphasis.  

In many cases we can’t fully articulate what it is about a poem that touches us or speaks to us, but we sense that something deeply meaningful has been uttered, that some energy in the gilded cage of prose has been momentarily released, set free in poetic form to transform and revitalise our jaded perspective. As Emerson implies above, good poetry has a level of vivacity that makes you feel everyday speech is a kind of soporific for the sleepwalking of everyday conversations.

Early in the event, senior climate scientist at the Met office, and award winning poet and broadcaster Rachel McCarthy began a point by saying: “As a climatologist, and as a poet…” She is one of very few (if any) people who can say that! This combination of qualities made her the ideal chair for the event and Rachel spoke periodically with regular gentle pauses that we are not used to experiencing in the Great Room. There were moments of tension and mild discomfort as a result, but that’s the point – to hold the tension and see what arises from it. Poets understand what sleepwalkers don’t; that words are heard best when well ventilated by the spaces between them.

Rachel also made the point that words are crucially important in making sense of how to respond to climate change. The emphasis on being both precise and evocative with language reminded me of an exchange in another recent RSA event when Guy Claxton asked Matthew Crawford how the craft of writing differed from the more concretely physical craft of, for instance, fixing motorcycles. Crawford responded as follows (35mins in):

“I guess I think of my own writing like representational art. I’m trying to get something right. I feel myself responsible to the world in trying to capture experience…It’s not creative writing…I feel there are standards outside of myself that I’m trying to answer to. In that sense, it’s like material things. But here’s a difference…material things tend to let you know right away when you get something wrong, because you get hurt…In writing you can go very far down the path of being completely deluded…and that’s why other people are very necessary. You need to triangulate, with feedback in that social form. And those moments where you feel you’ve really nailed something; those are the best moments. You feel like you’ve achieved some clarity.”

In one sense this statement is very far from poetry, but this idea of honouring experience by being precise in our choice of words is really important. The heart of the climate change challenge is precisely that while it speaks to our intellects it does not really connect with our emotions, and that’s mostly because it is an idea rather than an experience. Dan Ariely wasn’t joking when he said that if you wanted to come up with a problem people wouldn’t care about you could hardly do better than climate change. As Oliver Payne puts it, it’s distant in four main ways: “It’s not clear, it’s not here, it’s not me and it’s not now.”

So then why Poetry? Poetry is a medium that generates experience with words, by ferocious observation to meaningful experiences that might otherwise be considered mundane or irrelevant. In the context of climate change we need this skill to help keep the issue alive.

So when Tom Chivers (first up) imagines a post-apocalyptic scenario with the words:  “we hoarded palm oil and salt like the emperors of days gone by, till they too dwindled and were extinguished”….and later “when stocks ran low we entered the mangroves at dusk, trapped the spectacled caiman in his lair and sucked his eyes for juju beans.” It’s not as if you suddenly know what the price of carbon should be, or whether your organisation should divest in fossil fuel stocks or not, but by making the sense of generic foreboding more explicit and vivid, there is fresh impetus to make creative progress on whatever part of the climate canvas we are working on.

And when Grace Nichols writes: “I stand and gaze into the trade winds – discovering that the sun, is the only Eldorado.” You are right there in the cross-currents of two of the most powerful renewable sources of energy in the world, but now given extra emphasis; Eldorado is more than the sun, the trade winds are more than just wind. And she goes on, beautifully and believably, to juxtapose these global forces with the familiar human experience of dissonance; the sense that we ought to be doing something about forces beyond our control: “Like a tourist, I head back to the sanctuary of my hotel room, to dwell on change and age and our brooding planet, in the air-conditioned darkness.”

I admit that I didn’t ‘get’ Alica Oswald’s poem when I first heard it, but on replay the description of it as “a portrait of the strange non-human world that surrounds us” helped it come alive for me on its own terms, but also in the context of climate change. I particularly liked the line: “and after a while a flower turning its head to the side like a bored emperor” which somehow rang true. Nature is sovereign – like an emperor - but it is not particularly interested in us. It is now a truism to say the climate challenge is not a threat to ‘the planet’ as such, but to the human habitat, which is of greater concern to us than to it is to the ‘bored emperors’ of the world.

Selina Nwulu’s short film punctuated the poems, but included poetry of its own, not least the memorable line: "We have each become a small world, spinning from one collision to another." She also implied that one of the main problems with climate change is ‘climate change’ in the sense that the language is dead and the perspective is limited. The broader questions about social atomisation may get closer to the root of our global challenges.

Ruth Padel’s poem was an epic creation, a sustained meditation on climate denial and water over 24 stanzas. There were many beautiful lines, not least the idea of water being “the marrow of nine glaciers in Iceland, melting at nine different speeds.” This line captures the relentless of climate change along with its unevenness, and the implicit connection of ice with bone offered intimations of mortality. The lines that struck me most deeply however spoke directly to the idea of ‘stealth denial’ that was introduced in our 2013 climate change report.

“Riffle through dying corals in your bed, all the things you don’t want to know that you know  –  serpents in your tide, witchcraft under the floor, the lustre of hidden fox-foam sluicing in from the underworld” And then later, "I am the tragic mask. I am how you defend yourself from what it is catastrophe to have to know."

Jon Agard’s short poem Inheritance was resonant because it captured the inter-generational ethics at the heart of the climate crisis, building on the Biblical line that ‘blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth’. It was also spoken in a thunderous voice that is not easy to forget (c54mins) and again includes lines that make the familiar world enigmatic once more: “If we, the children of the meek, should inherit an earth, where the grass goes nostalgic at the mere mention of green, and the sky looks out of its depth when reminded of blue.”

Simon Barraclough’s poems served to show the power of a lighter, more humorous approach. In ‘How’s my coal?’ the sun asks whimsically for an update on all the available energy in the world, hinting at support for the emphasis on 'keeping the stuff in the ground': “How’s my coal getting on? I set as much aside for you as I could. Don’t use it all up at once. It might come in handy one day….How’s my oil faring? It keeps best underground, in the dark. Doesn’t do so well in the light. Don’t let it spoil.” Polar Heart imagines ice sheets breaking off as a signal that all is not well in the love affair between the north and south poles:

“…We know, we've tried. My love expands for six dark months, while yours retracts, to rally again, as mine melts away for half a year.I know we have to stay so far apart, I know the climate needs our hopeless pas de deux but sometimes at the solstice I yell “Screw this!"into the polar gale, and another ice shelf fails.”

George The Poet ended with a disarmingly simple question: "A paradigm shift is a change in common sense, but how do you go about rearranging common sense?"

Based on this series of excellent contributions I would respond by saying this: You start to rearrange common sense by charming the world with uncommon sense, brought to life through the creative use of language.


You can  watch the full replay of the event here. 

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA and the co-author of The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change: Introducing a new way to think, talk and act. @Jonathan_Rowson



[i] To keep this post to a reasonable length I have presented clips from poems as ordinary text. Some emphasis is certainly lost this way, but we hope to be able to publish the poems in full, as they were written, in due course.

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