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Ecopoetry: “A Question of Survival”

How the genre is redefining our attitude toward nature

Ecopoetics was a linchpin in last month's StAnza, the annual international poetry festival, held in St Andrews. With the theme of ‘Wild: Forms of Resistance’, this year’s festival was fitting for a performance from the ecopoet Craig Santos Perez. In his most recent collection, Habitat Threshold, the writer and activist draws on his own experiences of environmental injustice, such as when the U.S. military created environmental damage in Guam, his childhood home.

Perez is a professor of English at the University of Hawai’i, Mānoa, where he teaches creative writing, ecopoetry, and Pacific literature. Bringing environmentalism into his classroom, he might, for example, have students join a beach cleanup then write about plastic pollution. Perez believes that “Climate poetry can humanise data and give us the human voice behind everything that’s happening, I try to capture that range. It’s hard to feel despair and anger all the time.”

In his poem ‘Love in a Time of Climate Change’, he recycles Pablo Neruda's love poem ‘Sonnet XVII’. Instead of creating a romanticised view of nature, he mourns everything our planet has lost because of climate change. He laments, “I love you as one loves the most vulnerable/species: urgently, between the habitat and its loss.” Playing on Neruda’s line “I love you as one loves certain obscure things, / secretly, between the shadow and the soul.” Throughout Neruda’s legendary oeuvre, he commingles the reminiscing of love affairs with memories of the southern Chilean wilderness. Critic Rene de Costa affirms that “Traditionally, love poetry has equated woman with nature. Neruda took this established mode of comparison and raised it to a cosmic level, making woman into a veritable force of the universe”.

Historically, nature poetry was associated with escapism, a celebration of pastoral values, popularised by the Romantics, and indeed, love. Nowadays, poetry concerning the natural world must grapple with the impending threat of the climate crisis and its life-changing impacts. This type of writing falls under the category of environmental poetry or ecopoetry, which does not bestow the reader with this sense of romantic escapism but rather expresses our grief over the earth’s decay.

Romantic poets, such as William Wordsworth and William Blake, championed nature and quiet contemplation of emotions, rebelling against the mannered formalism and disciplined scientific inquiry that characterised the preceding Enlightenment era. These writers expressed spontaneous feelings, drew connections between their own emotional lives and the natural world, and focused on creativity rather than logic. Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience delves into the complexities of man’s status within the animal kingdom and his relationship with nature’s creatures. His poems promote the notion that humans and animals are equals, uniting the two through their shared mortality.

We see in both the love poetry of Neruda and the romantic poetry of Blake how the natural image is mystified, serving as a conduit to reveal interior human feelings This is thanks to our sublime experience of nature: the awesome intensity of emotion the beholder is faced with when perceiving the immensity of nature. A philosophical concept which emerged during the 17th century in Europe, the notion of the sublime influenced many Romantic poets such as Wordsworth who references the it in his seminal poem ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’: ‘Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood, / In which the burthen of the mystery,/ [...] Is lightened.’

Another ecopoet to create waves on the StAnza stage was Elizabeth Jane-Burnett who gave an immersive performance using poetry, prose, and song. Burnett is the author of the poetry collection Swims which follows her open water journey around the UK. Rather fittingly then, she began the day of her performance by plunging into the freezing waters of West Sands. In this collection she seeks to present the British countryside from a nuanced perspective, examining a landscape that is too easily romanticised out of its true environmental, and even political, schisms. Some sections record a process or ritual — such as when Burnett writes her hopes and fears across a swimsuit in black marker before immersion — others the sensation of ‘an upward force / greater than the weight of the heart’. Burnett believes that poetry does not just present the facts, it presents them in an “aesthetically pleasurable way. We don’t need to shy away from pleasure when we’re talking about something that’s difficult and upsetting. We can still get the pleasurable aspects of it as well.”

Our days of viewing nature as an escape from the harsh realities of life are over. There is no escape from climate change, and it is these ecopoets’ mission to confront our failings and bring about redemption. The genre’s momentum exemplifies the power of poetry: to question, incite change, and uncover truth. Ecopoetry is a genre of urgency and desperation. To borrow the words of critic Jay Parini(who studied at the University of St Andrews), “Nature is no longer the rustic retreat of the Wordsworthian poet. … [it] is now a pressing political question, a question of survival”.

Illustration: Jordan Anderson

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