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Drop in by Peter Clive

What better way to start the 2023 than with a drop in by a poet who cares deeply about protection of the environment, Peter Clive.

As I write this, while recovering from the hangover I inflicted on myself at a New Year’s party celebrating the start of 2023, Europe is experiencing temperature anomalies that are alarming meteorologists and climate scientists. Records are falling across the continent as temperatures that exceed the average for this time of year by 15 Celsius degrees or more are measured. Although we are still in the depths of winter, the weather is unseasonally warm. And if we were to add these increments of 15 Celsius degree or more to the temperatures we expect for summer, the result is deeply unsettling. The party’s over, and has been for some time, and the longer we delude ourselves and remain indifferent to the consequences of our recklessness, the more severely we will be punished by the hangover.

Global warming (the term we used to use before public relations firms funded by fossil fuel interests introduced the rather more benign sounding term “climate change”) has been something that has pre-occupied me for significantly longer than the duration of my Hogmanay hangover. In early 2019 I had that experience which most concerned individuals have had at some point in one form or another, for which the sudden realisation that an asteroid is going to hit the Earth served as a popular analogy in recent cinema (although I had found my way to that analogy in the poem below already). For me, it was the way the relative abundance of different isotopes of carbon in atmospheric methane changed in the mid-2010s, suggesting tipping points were coming into play. I was worried already, but this introduced a sense of dread that coalesced in the pit of my stomach and kept me awake at night.

One response was to publish a collection of poetry, the end of the age of fire, into which I could distill my anger, frustration, and fear, and in which I could perhaps discern the few lingering opportunities for hope that can be found in the way these circumstances expose some encouraging aspects of human nature. I enjoy long form poetry a great deal, and this is reflected in some of the works in this collection, such as “solstice,” “the eighteenth green,” and the “title track” of the album, as it were, “the end of the age of fire”. However, the poem from that collection I would like to discuss here is a shorter piece more suitable for a drop-in discussion, called Asteroid.

I have been more personal and vulnerable than I am accustomed to be in this poem. As I penetrate layers of time – the details of the present moment described in the first stanza (“the sun and rain clouds share the same sky today”), the five year period over which the tipping point has been activated (“the asteroid hit five years ago”), the decades of recklessness of which it is a consequence (“the asteroid hit forty years ago”), the different periods of time over which the crisis manifests itself as though these were geological strata which we excavate to reveal cause and effect – I begin to make reference to the impact these people’s behaviour has had on me, personally, as the timescale approaches my lifetime. I think we cannot respond to these events as though they are abstract or impersonal. They affect us all intimately, and our alienation from each other (described in the third and fifth stanzas) and from nature (“the slow dislocation of the seasons”) both originate in the same basic human dysfunction.

The final two lines are almost redundant, pointless, and in a sense that is their point. The poem requires a conclusion, a final cadence, a payoff, a lesson learned, a moral purpose, but we are still in the midst of this dilemma and betrayal, and the eventual outcome remains unclear. If the last two lines seem somewhat adrift and standalone, this is to some extent intentional. A reason, not an excuse. They would have been dropped in the edit but for this.

“The sudden panic of their umbrellas” illustrates another concern I have. As well as climate tipping points, there is a social tipping point, when the indifference of the people, with their irrelevant umbrellas, indifference that has been carefully cultivated by fossil fuel interests, indifference towards the climate catastrophe unfolding in plain sight over decades, yields to panic as their economies melt under inflation driven by rising prices caused by crop failure, supply chain disruption, and the cost of everything previously ignored as an “externality,” and jobs and homes and lives are lost in the ensuing polycrisis/permacrisis. They are caught in a trap, in “an endgame they don’t know they play,” by vulture capitalists who can safely retreat behind the walls and private security guards of their gated compounds, and the protection which the grotesque inequalities we have allowed them to erect afford them. Indeed, every other consideration is sacrificed to preserve their unearned privilege.    

These concerns, in themselves, do not necessitate a poetical response – polemical, certainly, political, perhaps, but not necessarily poetical – except when we recognise that they are concerns that are fundamentally about our relationship with nature.

The role of poetry in expressing our relationship with nature has been rendered topical by Matthew Walther’s interesting piece in the New York Times last week (“Poetry Died 100 Years Ago This Month,” 29th December 2022). Walther’s assertion that “poetry is dead” (which has provoked some degree of controversy) seems based, in part at least, on his perception that our scientific understanding of the world disrupts our relationship with nature.

I have to take issue with this. I can’t help but feel that someone who says that science leaves us disenchanted and incapable of relating to nature in a way that nourishes a poetic imagination, as Walther asserts, knows very little about science. When Walther uses the word “science” it seems to me he is actually referring to extractivism, the exploitation of nature enabled by technology, e.g., when he talks about “resources”. Science is not exploitation or extractivism. It turns a star in the night sky, an object that cannot possibly be the subject of our cupidity, from a tiny pinprick of light just out of reach in a universe stunted by the cramped confines of the medieval, pre-scientific imagination, into a vast, remote maelstrom of plasma described by distances, dimensions and temperatures that require remarkable feats of imagination of which we would not otherwise believe ourselves to be capable.

Science vastly enriches our ability to relate to nature, and provides us with a much more refined and precise way of imagining and describing this relationship. If that does not extend to our poetry, it is not the fault of science. As we face the climate crisis, the need for science literate poetry is more urgent than ever. Where extractivism renders nature legible only in terms of resources that can be exploited, and disregards both the environmental and the psychic damage this inflicts, a science literate poetry must be part of our response, where we replace extractivism with interactivism, our unsustainable exploitation of the environment replaced by a sustainable interaction with the environment that fully accommodates and respects the rich complexity of the world on which extractivism imposed the brutal simplifications of balance sheet and bottom line. Just as science and technology will remain central to this sustainable engagement with nature, that engagement will not be complete without science literate poetry with which to express our relationship with nature. Where the balance sheet is sufficient for a world made legible by extractivism, poetry is required for one made legible by interactivism, and science literate poetry in particular. I hope that some of my poetry contributes to this.    

Another thing that attracts me to poetry is the music one can make with the concepts one manipulates and arranges in the poem. My background is in music and science, and I am something of a latecomer to poetry, or rather, I have not felt ready to write poetry until relatively recently. Nevertheless, I am habituated to musical thought. When considering the way information is gradually revealed in a poem, I think of the effect in musical terms, and sometimes what I am trying to achieve in relation to the music created by the interplay of ideas is quite independent of the semantic content of those ideas and any argument they sustain. Perhaps the little miracle of poetry is when both the words and the music of a poem find themselves serving the same end.

Next week read my review of the end of the age of fire.


Nigel Kent’s collection of ekphrastic poems, Unmuted (Hedgehog Poetry Press), is inspired by a gallery of famous works by artists from the present and the past. Each artwork acts as a frame in a storyboard which he unfreezes and unmutes to reveal the narrative he imagines lies behind it. Even for those who have no interest in art these direct, accessible and moving poems will stand alone and promise to engage with issues that truly matter.

Kent’s poetry is succint, never bloated and always delivered with a poignant and very human point of view.” Priss Bliss, Dreich Broad No. 3

For details of how to purchase a copy, click here


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