Poetry: A Defence of the Earth

Diane Pacitti

The soft sliminess of the slug is the otherness of God.

Being inspired by a 200-year-old poet lands you in strange places.

Blake spoke of ‘mind-forged manacles’, and identified the colonising world-view which was producing a dead planet long before the seas were choked with plastic (‘London’ 8).  Now we are faced with ecological crisis. This requires more than the scientific, data-based response which many people think has made poetry redundant. It demands an overturning of the world-view which sees the earth as a collection of inanimate resources.

Just as the addressing of racism requires a radical re-thinking of history, so we will only reverse our stubborn act of earth-murder by rejecting our assumption of lone superiority. And by questioning the hierarchies into which we fit the so-called “natural world”.

To humans a dividing fence: to the crow a perching-place;
to the bindweed a deeper thrust of root; to the planet’s
descending layers of rock a shallow joke.

This is a personal and passionate plea for both the reading and writing of poetry. It tells how immersion in the poetry of Shelley’s contemporaries has inspired my creative journey and changed my earth-vision. Recently I have participated in two projects at St. James’s Piccadilly (where Blake was baptised): one focussing on the wheat (cultivated grass) and the second on Weeds and Wilding. I found myself re-writing Blake’s ‘Proverbs of Hell’to give voice to weeds, fungi and other lower or rejected life-forms.

The human eye sees surface and difference;
the eyeless fungus connects all that is.

Why does so much poetry, like eco-posters, focus on the cute, the beautiful, the awe-inspiring in “nature”? Why does it not talk more about the less glamorous presences which sustain life? Why do religious traditions look to the air and birds for images of Spirit, rather than drawing on the transformations being wrought by the soil, a liminal place where death and life interact?

‘Insects as small as dust are never done
Wi’ glittering dance and reeling in the sun’
(Clare, ‘Shepherd’s Calendar’ 3-4)

The poetry of John Clare, who actually worked the fields, offered in its time the kind of radical shift which we need in a different form now. Clare’s poems often buzz with flies. Wild flowers (weeds to some) are described in relation to their insects, their habitat, to bird life and to the human land-working community. Clare saw ‘Inclosure like a Bonaparte’ destroy these habitats (‘Remembrances’ 67). Now industry has vomited its poison. Industrialised agriculture has imposed monocultures, deadening the landscape. How can we re-animate the earth, both literally and in our own minds?

‘To become native to this place … our work is to
learn to speak the grammar of animacy, so that we
might truly be at home.’
(Kimmerer 58)

In Braiding Sweetgrass, the indigenous American botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer shows how science (and the English language) uses ‘it’ to describe other-than-human life-forms, turning them to object-nouns. In contrast, the Potawatomi language uses verbs. Which means a mountain is actively engaged in being a mountain, as it is through the flow of time. The tools of science, which even in Shelley’s time was thought be some to have superseded poetry, reduce living forms to objects for analysis. Whereas poetry speaks the language of animacy, using all the resources of language, rhythm and syntax. Keats famously wrote:

‘If a Sparrow come before my Window, I take part in
its existince and pick about the Gravel.’
(Keats 38)

Century after century, poetry has practised this imaginative empathy. Endless examples crowd to mind, but I will pick out the sinuous, winding rhythms with which Lawrence creates a snake, or the precise attention with which Alice Oswald speaks of the passage of water through a plant. This process of enactment is why poetry makes us feel the destruction of the earth deep in our own bodies. Again, examples proliferate, but I choose Praise Song for Oceania by Craig Santos Perez (also a collaboration with a Hawaiian film-maker). This is the opposite of propaganda, because the poet creates the sea in its fullness, mimicking its flowing, ebbing rhythms, celebrating it as thoroughfare, healer and ‘a library of drowned stories’ even as he speaks of human polluting. Science tells us what the mystics have always known: that our DNA proves we are kin to everything in the universe. Poetry makes us feel it.

‘sweet Science reigns’
(‘Vala’ 855)

Surprising words to hear from William Blake, but this is the closing line of ‘The Four Zoas’, in which scientific materialism, or reason, disintegrates and is raised into new being. Contemporary science is producing startling and mind-enlarging insights, which need to be woven into the texture of our poetry. Merlin Sheldrake is just one example of a scientist who uses precise diagnostic tools to pose huge questions, challenge our world-view.

I have not journeyed alone in my two plant-based projects. They are a collaboration with a scientist, Deborah Colvin, and an artist, Sara Mark. Colvin’s microscope slides indeed show ‘a world in a grain of sand’ (Blake, ‘Auguries’ 1). Her work has revealed intricate processes of cell construction, shown how ‘weeds’ like vetch are pioneer plants, slowly repairing the soils we have desecrated. A year ago I could never have written a poem about a greenfly, drawing on leaf habitat and relationship with other insects. Fascinating to think that the manna described in Exodusmight have been aphid poo!

‘The Wedding-Guest stood still
And listens like a three years child
(Coleridge 18-19)

Coleridge’s insight in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is confirmed by research studies: what engages our intellects and hearts is not scientific fact or reasonable argument, but stories. Poetry can stop us in our tracks with the stories of indigenous peoples, whose language often reads as a poem-prayer. It can, like William Blake, create myths. Or it can re-make them, as so many poets are doing now, whether it is Simon Armitage presenting a contemporary version of Noah’s Ark, or a wealth of poets turning to woman-based myths, recreating Persephone or celebrating Gaia.

The Christian religion carries heavy responsibility for interpreting stewardship of the earth as domination, but its story-based texts are capable of radical re-thinking. Coleridge retold the myth of Cain as a crime against a living creature. I plan to re-tell this story located at a cusp of human history as the murder of a nomadic herdsman by a land-possessing agriculturalist, and to relate this to more recent stories of indigenous displacement. I hope that in my poem, as in Genesis, the land will cry out with Abel’s blood.

‘A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.’
(Bishop 133-36)

In Elizabeth Bishop’s poem ‘The Moose’, the ‘grand, otherworldly’ animal emerges from the dark to encounter a crowded bus, briefly surprising its passengers with ‘a sweet sensation of joy’(153-6). Poetry ‘participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one’, wrote Shelley in his ‘Defence’ (6). I make no such claims, other than to state that an encounter with the ‘natural world’ is formany people their most powerful experience of the sacred. It is to step outside our stale, consumption-dominated humanscape. Bishop’s poem works as an image for what poetry can do. It is the moose, or Edward Thomas’s aspens, or in my case, wheat shoots in a church courtyard, interacting with water and light, sprouting green at the heart of a London emptied by Covid. As Les Murray shows us in his astonishing collection, poetry offers Translations from the Natural World.

Yes, poetry can enable us to enter into other life-forms.  Like Wordsworth, it can animate mountains. It must also make us gasp with wonder that these beings are other, and strange.

Works Cited

Bishop, Elizabeth. ‘The Moose’, in Geography III. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.

Blake, William. ‘Auguries of Innocence’, in The Complete Writings of William Blake. Ed. by Geoffrey Keynes. Oxford UP, 1966.

Blake, William. ‘London’, in The Complete Writings of William Blake.

Blake, William. ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, in The Complete Writings of William Blake.

Blake, William. ‘Vala, or The Four Zoas’, in The Complete Writings of William Blake.

Clare, John. ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar: June’, in The Major Works. Ed. by Eric Robinson and David Powell. Oxford UP, 2004.

Clare, John. ‘Remembrances’, in The Major Works.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, in Lyrical Ballads 1805. Ed. by Derek Roper. Collins, 1968.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass.Milkweed Editions, 2013.

Keats, John. ‘Letter to Benjamin Bailey, November 22nd, 1817’, in Letters of John Keats. Ed. by Robert Gittings. Oxford UP, 1985.

Murray, Les. Translations from the Natural World. Carcanet, 1993.

Perez, Craig Santos, director. Praise Song for Oceania, 2017.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. A Defense of Poetry. Ed. by Albert S. Cook. Ginn & Company 1891.

Diane Pacitti has recently produced Dark Angelic Mills, a Bradford-based collection written during a poetry residency. Her  earlier publication Guantanamo, a collaboration with her artist husband Antonio Pacitti, was highly praised by Harold Pinter. She was awarded first prize in the Bronte Poetry Competition, and is currently exploring Weeds and Wilding at St. James’s Piccadilly and across the earth.