A Different Sort of Provocation


    This January I moved from a flat in central Exeter to a wooden house in the Loire Valley. I’ve replaced the urban sprawl with a neat patchwork of farmlands and woods but there is one constancy of a now not-so-peculiarly-English persuasion occupying me, the weather. As I write this, Storm Imogen is dancing across the sky, whipping her outer skirts of rain against my study window. The storm has battered southern Britain, with waves as high as Gormley’s Angel of the North recorded off of St Ives. Back in Devon my former colleagues at the Met Office will be fielding questions as to whether the succession of storms in Britain this autumn and winter, nine so far, is within our understanding of how the planet naturally works, or if these storms have been super-powered by climate change. I know as this is the exact question two British poetry friends asked me over breakfast this morning. As they finished their croissants and donned raincoats I explained what we know. That, in short, it’s too early to tell, but basic physics suggests that this type of behaviour is consistent with what we should expect in our warming world.

    My visitors tightened their boots and struck out for the nearest deer-laden wood, talking of how to poetically engage with climate change. To address this issue it’s natural to examine how poets have engaged with climate and nature, starting with the Romantics. So today I stayed home, not because I’m adverse to a soaking (such an attitude is impossible when you’ve grown up in the North West of England) but part of my time here is much needed rest after a prolonged period of ill-health. I watched the outlines of my friends blur and assimilate with the rain and, thinking about my state and their discussion, found my companionship in Coleridge’s poem ‘This Lime Tree Bower My Prison’. Coleridge injured himself on the morning of the arrival of his friends Charles Lamb and Dorothy and William Wordsworth. Unable to walk, he sat and composed this poem to them while they went on their evening stroll. He imagines in detail what his friends may see ‘to whom / No sound is dissonant which tells of life’. Over the next two years Coleridge wrote some of his most famous poems and with Wordsworth published Lyrical Ballads (1802), widely recognised as marking the advent of the Romantic movement. As Seamus Heaney pointed out in his introduction to the Selected Wordsworth (Faber and Faber, 1988), Wordsworth’s youth, nestled in Cumberland beneath the elemental majesty of the mountains, meant he had ‘grown up visited by sensations of immensity . . . communing with a reality he apprehended as a world beyond the senses’.

    In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth speaks of composition as ‘emotion recalled in tranquillity’ until ‘by a species of reaction the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation is gradually produced and does not actually exist in the mind’. Representation of the natural world was not metaphor, but a method of transcendence. The transcendence rooted in contemplation of the linkage between the land at its most majestic and man at his most humble and rural, ‘because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity. . . and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended, and are more durable; and, lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature’.

    As Wordsworth was writing his Preface the rural population was starting to decline. Forced enclosure of agricultural land was taking place, propelled by increased productivity and the need to create a landless working class to power the developing industrial revolution in northern England. People moved from farm to city and the industrial revolution started to push tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and essentially started the human-induced epoch of climate change.

    The alienation of enclosure is best represented through the lamentations of day labourer and hedge-setter John Clare (1793-1864). Clare reads as a patient and detailed observer of the life of the land, its bird calls, flowers and weeds; “Ragwort, though humble flower with tattered leaves / I love to see thee come and litter gold, /”. As Sarah Maguire points out in her introduction to Flora Poetica ( Chatto and Windus, 2001), Clare’s weed poems can be seen ‘as a political act – giving weight and dignity. . . – and as a ges- ture of love, a refusal to allow all that is being lost to pass by unrecorded’.

    Clare’s engagement with the natural world differed to Wordsworth and anyone writing now necessarily has to differ from Clare. The world now is a very different place; socioeconomically, politically and technologically. It is through technology that the science of climate change has spread to the global public. Although the science has been reported with varying levels of accuracy the fact of its discussion means it sits behind almost every poet’s contemplation of nature. Sometimes it is obvious, most often too obvious, but in some cases absorbed into the fabric of that contemplation, like a fine but necessary stitch.

    In contemporary poetry it’s Alice Oswald’s work that resounds most sharply with Clare’s for its detail and patience, but it is, as it needs to be, a different species of writing. As Jeanette Winterson said of ‘Weeds and Wildflowers’ (Faber and Faber, 2009), a meeting of Oswald’s poems with etchings by Jessica Greenman and winner of the inaugural Ted Hughes Award, Oswald is ‘not content to work only with what exists already’ and rightly so, as indeed how permissible would it be to write as Clare, or Hughes, or Heaney, now? Oswald’s plants are darkly comic, investigating the human psyche through their names. What connects the poems and etchings is ‘their contention that flowers are recognisably ourselves elsewhere’. She attains her hope that the book will be ‘a slightly unsettling pleasure, like walking through a garden at night, when the plants come right up to the edges of their names and then beyond them’. This concept of a movement beyond links us back to Wordsworth’s pursuit of a state of transcendence. However to me Oswald’s work and her collection Dart in particular, which tracks the life of the river and those who work in it and with it, is more focussed on encouraging realisation. She focuses our attention on listening to the small movements and music lapping at our human borders.

    Borders both linguistic and geographical are part of the focus by those in- cluded in The Ground Aslant, An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry (Shearsman 2011), worth investigating for its astute and comprehensive introduction by Harriet Tarlo alone. Modernist circles have surged in their engagement with landscape, place and environmentalism since the late 1970s and Clare as well as the early British modernists, particularly Bunting with his famous long poem ‘Briggflatts’ are notable ancestors. Many of the poets represented here display intelligent deceptiveness and play- fulness in their engagement. They present a challenge, which in turn provokes careful consideration of the etymologies and patternings of weather, boundaries, gardens and enclosures.

    Zoe Skoulding, in ‘From Here’ uses urban language to speak of the rural and vice-versa, “the edge of land traffic / turning in swathes of sea”, “. . . every sparrow every / shadow falling in parabolas”. Carol Watts sets up a harmonic sequence, using prime numbers and economics to look at the values around farming in ‘Zeta Landscape’. What these poets along with the others in The Ground Aslant, notably Denise Riley, Colin Simms and Ian Davidson share with Oswald is a Bunting-esque focus on sonic quali- ties of language until, as he says in ‘Briggflatts’, “each spark trills on a tone beyond chronological compass / yet in a sextant’s bubble present and firm / places a surveyor’s stone or steadies a tiller.”

    Kei Miller’s The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion is a collection of thirty surveyor’s stones. Miller shares little of the particular preoccupations of environment, climate and romanticism in this essay. It’s his structure, although functioning in a different context, that bears mention. We have the scientific cartographer trying to map a route to the world beyond. To be successful becomes a question not of contours and sea-level-elevation, but of less easily resolvable qualities, those of self-realisation, humanity, generosity and spirit.

    In May last year I chaired the Royal Society of Arts’ night of poetic re- sponses to climate change; The Point is to Feel it. ‘Intellectually we “get it’’’ the advertisement read, ‘and yet we still cannot close that yawning gulf between our knowledge and our day-to-day behaviour. In trying to close that chasm between cognition and action, we need a different sort of provocation’. In a recent Guardian interview I spoke about this chasm. I feel strongly that there is a responsibility on climate science (as there is other of areas of science which affect all of us, like medical care) to communicate effectively. A continued and strong, hard look needs to be taken at science’s use of language outside of the production of peer-to-peer papers. Equally poetry and wider literature has a responsibility to the science. By this I don’t mean that poetry should by any means be necessarily interested in decimal places but that when it tells it slant, it should tell the truth (to reverse-quote Emily Dickinson). Otherwise what is already a muddied picture in public consciousness risks becoming even more so. This requires collaboration between climate science and the arts and ideally experts in both disciplines in the same room at the same time.

    The vanguard here are the the organisations Tipping Point, directed by Peter Gingold and Free Word, directed by Rose Fenton. With their partners and publication schemes like Weather Fronts and Weather Stations as struts they are building bridges between the two communities to gener- ate inventive yet also scientifically aware creative outputs. For me, at the forefront of those achieving a blend of science and the short story is Tania Hershmann with her collection The White Road and Other Stories. Add poetry into the mix too and its model is Ruth Padel. Her book Mara Crossing (Chatto and Windus, 2012) is a lesson in movement, both literal and literary, with its subject the different forms and forces behind migration. Her poems peak in strength when talking of birds in particular, with their cycle of migration and immigration. Her prose is gentle and compelling in its contemplation of downsizing her house as her daughter flies the nest. Padel is expert at pointing us back to human issues through the lens of the non-human. Her poem ‘24 Splashes of Denial’ commissioned by the RSA is a fine case in point.

    The RSA and Free Word have rightly been championing Selima Nwulu, the Young Poet Laureate for London. She’s instrumental in the final rank of my contemporary vanguard when it comes to enlivening our engagement with the natural world. I had the pleasure to introduce Selima’s work and that of George the Poet at the RSA. Both side-stepped the pitfall I’ve seen countless other performance-orientated poets (not a term I like, I add) walk into; a confused, poorly researched and singular focus on the failings of human governance on environmental matters. Yes, there are issues with provision of renewable energy subsidies. Yes, international negotiations on climate, as with most other areas, are slow, and their outcomes not ideal. Enacting change however, performance poetry’s great aspiration, requires providing a route through which society can relate to the human position in the problem at its basic level, not at a poorly understood governmental one. This is not a question of party politics and its five-year cycle when the issue is a problem hundreds of years in the making and with hundreds of years worth of repercussion in store. Nwulu and George The Poet recognise this, their focus is broader, encompassing choice and the individual, then the individual’s place in society, then what it means to be a society in a globally connected world.

    This snapshot of a vanguard I’ve assembled here, although different in style (a necessity I believe when it comes to communicating something of such importance to so many people) are all linked by what another of the ‘founding five’ romantic poets, Shelley, said. They are ‘creators of language’ refreshing it for society. It is their informed, inventive, educated voices we should read, hear and work with, scientists and writers alike. As quite simply, for cohesive societal action on climate change there are peaks bigger than Wordsworth’s transcendental Cumbrian mountains to climb.


    Rachel McCarthy is a former senior climate scientist at the Met Office Hadley Centre and a winner of the inaugural ‘Laureate’s Choice’ award. Her first poetry collection Element was chosen by Carol Ann Duffy as marking ‘one of the brightest new voices in British poetry’, and published in 2015 under the imprint ‘Laureate’s Choice’ by Smith Doorstop. She splits her time between the French and Welsh valleys.