Can reading, writing and studying poetry have any relevance to how we think about and respond to increasingly grim environmental issues?
A trio of award-winning poets, editors and creative writing lecturers from the School of English and Media Studies at Massey University’s Auckland campus in Albany, share their ideas on a provocative notion in a forthcoming public lecture.
In Can poetry save the Earth? (Thursday 31 May at 6:30pm), Associate Professor Bryan Walpert, Dr Jack Ross and Dr Jo Emeney explore the idea that writing and reading poetry can connect us to the natural world in a way that resonates with one of the most pressing issues of our time – the impact of climate change. They will discuss how imagination and thinking about nature can be opened up through poetry, and will read their own and others’ work – from home grown talent such as Hone Tuwhare and Brian Turner to American poet Robert Frost and Romantic English poet John Clare.
They’ve borrowed the lecture title from Can Poetry Save the Earth? A Field Guide to Nature Poems - poet and critic John Felstiner's 2009 exploration of how the human and natural worlds connect. While Felstiner may have intended just to give his book a catchy title, “Poetry and poets can use their sway to agitate for change. Why else would so many of us be put in prison?” says Jo. “I can think of at least one example where the use of a chemical pesticide (DDT) was banned across the United States as a direct result of a book on the subject written by a poet.”
“I think Felstiner chose the title in a teasing way, since it's so obvious that poetry can't save the Earth. It gets more interesting when you start to question ‘why not’, though,” says Jack. “Why couldn't it at least help? Doesn't poetry - by its nature - suggest certain attitudes which might be of value in keeping us alive?”
“I don’t think a particular poem is likely to save the Earth,” says Bryan, “but I think that poetry as a whole can have an important effect on the way we think about the problems around us.”
Eco-poetry voices 21st century concerns
While there are and always have been ‘nature poets’, there’s now a complete school of thought, with learned journals, anthologies, and growing bodies of work called ‘eco-poetry,’ says Jack. He and Bryan have co-supervised a PhD thesis in this relatively new, cross-disciplinary field. “I don't see how one can be a poet and not be aware of your environment, regardless of what that awareness actually means or constitutes,” he says.
“Poetry is about respect, about making sure that in future we listen more carefully to the voices who've been warning about this for so long: before Rachel Carson [ecological prose poet and author of the ground-breaking 1962 environmental science book Silent Spring], even, and all the way back to John Clare [19th century English poet) and [Romantic English poet and painter] William Blake (those 'dark satanic mills’).
“Perhaps in the current context,” says Bryan, “at a time when we are so overwhelmed with digital waves of language and such a public experience of it, much of it without nuance – private experiences of language that take more than a few seconds to read, that bear re-reading, and that embrace complexity have a particular value.”
[sidebar?] Introducing the speakers
Dr Jo Emeney has written two poetry collections: Apple & Tree (Cape Catley 2011), and Family History (Mākaro Press 2017), as well as a recent nonfiction book, The Rise of Autobiographical Medical Poetry and the Medical Humanities (ibidem Press 2018).
Dr Jack Ross is managing editor of Poetry New Zealand, New Zealand’s oldest poetry journal (now published by Massey University Press), as well as author of several poetry collections, including A Clearer View of the Hinterland (2014).
Associate Professor Bryan Walpert has published several collections of poetry in the US, the UK and New Zealand, most recently Native Bird (Makaro Press); a collection of short fiction, Ephraim’s Eyes, which includes the short story, 16 Planets, that won the climate change themed Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Award for fiction. He’s also written two scholarly books on poetry, Resistance to Science in Contemporary American Poetry and the recently published Poetry and Mindfulness: Interruption to a Journey.
Can poetry save the Earth?
31 May, 6.30pm
Sir Neil Waters Lecture Theatre (SNW300), Massey University Auckland campus, Albany
Register at massey.ac.nz/ourchangingworld