The Love Poetry of Climate Change

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

by the ocean and I could make it

anything you wanted.


This readerly control (‘anything you wanted’) is encouraged by the speaker’s cryptic phrasing:


We’re sat by the ocean and this

could be a love poem; but that lullaby murderer

refuses each name I give it.


The image of ‘that lullaby murderer’ is beguiling. Unlike the traditional love sonnets, in which the world is a backdrop for the speaker, this speaker cannot press his surroundings into a poetic conceit. Dorgan’s world, too, eludes his speaker as he offers untraceable metaphors:


When the great ships come back,

and come they will,

when they stand in the sky

all over the world,

candescent suns by day,

radiant cathedrals in the night.

These mysterious metaphors enact a problem of engagement with climate change. What are the ‘great ships’? And what are their derivatives, the ‘candescent suns’ and ‘radiant cathedrals’? In Sergeant’s poem, the ‘lullaby murderer’ cannot just be the sea: what’s the connection? Similarly, Dorgan’s chain of derived metaphors seem unrelated. What are the ships? Stars? A Second Coming? These metaphors are vehicles (the image) without tenors (the object). Their elusive construction reflects the degree to which climate degradation is rooted in historical decisions made before we started to understand and to worry about their effects.


Poems won’t solve climate degradation. But they do focus the reader’s mind. During climate change, where our response is everything, we cannot be traditional readers, content to be made in the world’s image. The reader has to become the subject. The poem needs to be made in each reader’s image. Dorgan issues the final challenge for the reader when his speaker asks:


What have you done

with what was given you[?]


He doesn’t only mean the ‘blue, beautiful world’ but the poem too. What have you done with the poem? How have you read the conceit? Have you let it mystify you – or have you found a way and made a response?

Illustrations by Issy Davies

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