Exploring the challenges of engaging with climate degradation through poetic speakers, objects, and readers
By Patrick Naylor
‘If information was all we needed, we’d have solved climate change by now’. So goes Carol Ann Duffy’s introduction to Keep it in the Ground, an anthology of climate change poems commissioned by the Guardian in 2015. Duffy doesn’t suggest that poems will solve climate change. Instead, they offer ‘an emotional or aesthetic connection’. But what does that mean and how can it be useful? She continues: ‘The UNFCCC, Contracts for Difference, common but differentiated responsibilities and methane clathrates don’t say “read me” to most of us’. ‘Read me’, though, is precisely urged by the poems in in Duffy’s anthology through a range of readerly challenges. By unpicking these challenges, I hope to substantiate Duffy’s proposal of a ‘connection’, suggesting how reading these poems about the climate can mimic a struggle to engage with climate degradation.
We’re sat by the ocean and this
could be a love poem […].
This is the beginning to David Sergeant’s ‘A Language of Change’, anthologised by Duffy. It begins in a state of suspension and equivocation, its genre undecided. Theo Dorgan’s poem, ‘The Question’, offers the idea of the love poem too, describing ‘the blue, beautiful world’; but it quickly withdraws the genre, instead asking the reader:
What have you done
with what was given you[?]
These poems are not traditional love poems, too concerned about the objects they describe (the ocean for Sergeant, and Dorgan’s ‘blue, beautiful world’) rather than the speaker which describes them. In the earliest English love sonnets, the objects would traditionally be used as a backdrop against which a lyrical, and sometimes confessional speaker elaborates himself. For instance, in the Rime Sparse, Petrarch loved Laura – yet Laura herself scarcely appears in his early verses:
It was the day the sun’s rays had turned pale
with pity for the suffering of his Maker
when I was caught, and I put up no fight,
my lady, for your lovely eyes had bound me.
The ‘you’-figure is a background against which the poem’s real interest, the ‘bound’ speaker, can project itself, imagining its struggle as a series of extended metaphors:
A bitter rain of tears pours down my face
blowing with a wind of anguished sighs
whenever my eyes turn to look at you
for whom, alone, I am divided from mankind.
Modern poets have responded to climate degradation using the elaborate speakers and conceits of these traditional love poems. Craig Santos Perez’s ‘Sonnet XVII’ (published last year in The New Republic) begins:
I don’t love you as if you were rare earth metals, diamonds,
or reserves of crude oil that propagate war[.]
The poem is traditional to the extent that a speaker, bound in love, demonstrates its imaginative energy through the elaborate construction of an object. Each iteration of the speaker’s love in the octave is metaphorical, eventually reaching an elision between speaker and object as both are implicated in the rising sea:
I love you like this because we won’t survive any other way,
except in this form in which humans and nature are kin,
so close that your emissions of carbon are mine,
so close that your sea rises with my heat.
The speaker confesses at once his love – ‘my heat’ – but also his guilt – ‘my heat’. Carbon emissions and rising waters, the damage done to the planet, are the vehicles for the speaker’s own love for the earth.
Yet, in ‘A Language of Change’, Sergeant’s speaker emerges not as an inventive subject, but as one challenged by and insensitive to his surroundings. Perhaps Sergeant resists the elaborate lyrical voices because they reinforce the problem that the planet might be seen as a background against which human fantasies can play out. The speaker candidly struggles throughout the poem to describe his surroundings: ‘that lullaby murderer / refuses each name I give it’; ‘the muse of poetry / has told me to be more clear’. Embarrassed, the speaker realises he needs to be ‘sequester[ed]’ and hidden away, using the legal metaphor to imply a formal shift of control to the reader as they unpick the semantic knots and puzzles.
Perhaps it was always like this – take my hand,
horizon – ceding this land.
The poem ends with the speaker describing high tide, ‘ceding this land’ to the water, as they learn their object isn’t peripheral but, as ‘icebergs seep into our sandwiches’, is imminent and will be overwhelming.
Dorgan doesn’t empower but indicts his readers, urging their confession. He inscribes the reader in a ‘you’-form, demands explanation of the damage to the earth:
What have you done
with what was given you,
what have you done with
the blue, beautiful world?
Importantly, though, the ‘you’ in these lines derives from the last line of the previous verse: ‘how shall we answer the question’. It is a plural form that imagines a public, rather than an individual response. Brilliantly, any perception of the ‘you’ as an individual form is undermined because the individual reader is unlikely to feel the weight of guilt ascribed to the ‘you’-figure. ‘What have you done’ is inappropriate, disproportionate for the individual reader: they didn’t invent carbon. By making the reader aware of the limitations of their guilt, Dorgan reinforces the problem – is your guilt sufficient to alter your behaviour? – whilst also suggesting its solution through an intended public response.
Sergeant offers a ‘you’-form which implies readerly control over the speaker:
[…] we’re sat