Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ecopoetics and Beyond: Can Poetry Make Things Happen?

Today on the Guardian website, the editor of Bloodaxe Books Neil Astley has some pertinent and uncompromising remarks to make about the infamous WH Auden quotation that 'poetry makes nothing happen'.

Describing an RTE radio programme last year in which he discussed poetry with leading Irish politician Trevor Sargent, Neil Astley tells us of Sargent's favourable reaction to ecopoems, including one which the former leader of the Green Party in Ireland felt should be required reading in Irish schools.

Astley writes:

"If our own politicians spent just a couple of minutes each day reading these kinds of poems, they might be better fitted to carry out their duties more responsibly. We might even be able to trust some of them then to act in our interest in what they do to tackle the problems of environmental destruction and global warming."

This article appears in the wake of a new anthology of ecopoems edited by Neil Astley, entitled 'Earth Shattering', and in promotion of a London Word Festival debate at the Bishopsgate Institute this Friday evening, when he'll be taking part in a discussion on 'Making Nothing Happen', chaired by Roddy Lumsden, alongside poets Mario Petrucci and Melanie Challenger, and Caspar Henderson.

You can find the full text of that article here and learn more about the London Word Festival here.

Personally I think poetry has every chance of making things happen, if by that we mean sinking it deep into the psyche of a country so that it emerges in other ways and places: in our politics, our relationships, our methods of child-rearing, our attempts to look after the planet, our attitudes towards foreigners and foreign wars.

Poetry can be propaganda - see much of Rupert Brooke's output, for instance - but the more complex it is, the greater its mental, emotional and political ramifications, the less likely it is that poetry will sink to the level of mere jingoism or eco-rap.

As we move out of the nebulous noughties, we may be entering a great age for political poetry. Unfortunately it's unlikely that we'll be certain of that until we're at least halfway through it, and maybe not even then. Which means that those of us who wish to write politically, who feel the need to address issues which extend beyond the home or immediate working environment of our lives - assuming we're not already living in a war-zone, that is, where politics rapidly becomes part of the daily structure of life - must press on regardless of criticism or fashion.

The proof of the poetry may well be in the way of happening, as Neil Astley's article suggests, rather than in any immediate changes brought about by individual poems.


Rachel Fox said...

I really admire the way Neil Astley speaks out about poetry and what it can do, who it can be for, what it can be for. He must know he's going to be tutted at from great heights (or from what some think are great heights..) for dragging poetry into the rest of the world but he does it anyway. He gave a lecture at StAnza a while back that was really invigorating.

Jane Holland said...

Thanks for that, Rachel. I love the way you make his lecture sound like a back rub ... "really invigorating"!

I don't always agree with Neil Astley's views, but I've always admired his political stance on poetry. It's become fashionable in poetry to be a bit 'luvvie' and not rock the boat by making statements which might upset people or clash with other people's views. Too many poets keeping their heads down and refusing to engage with the everyday world.

Life isn't that simple though, and nor is poetry. I absolutely agree with you that we need people in poetry who are willing to stand up and make political statements of this kind, regardless of hostile reactions.

Crafty Green Poet said...

I enjoyed this post and the original Guardian article that you quote. I think its all about the how you say it, rants disguised as poetry only annoy, but well crafted thoughtful poetry that addresses issues is vital and has a real chance of engaging people's minds in issues