The ecological long poem and a model for climate change poetics
  • Connor Weightman

Although the difficulty of representing climate change remains an issue across all literary genres, some critics argue that poetry is perhaps most able to account for the problems of open-endedness, temporal and geographical scale. However, existing climate change poetry remains too often framed by ideological narratives, relying on the reader to already be onside of the problem. To that end, this article offers totalising long poetry as an approach to future poetic representation of climate change. It explores two ecological long poems, ‘Hymn to Life’ by Timothy Donnelly (2014) and ‘Wildfire’ by Andrea Brady (2010). Through different visual devices, both poems use fragmentation and parataxis to interlink an excess of information that spans histories, places, sciences and media. This use of information density leads to ‘sublime’ and ‘operational’ aesthetics, creating potential reader engagement with the subjects at hand. By performing the organisation of a large amount of material, they implicate the poem-writing in the process, and ask the readers to do the same, emphasising the conceptually indeterminate process of encountering wide-scale Anthropocene problems over textual closure.

Keywords: climate change; long poem; Timothy Donnelly; Andrea Brady; ecopoetry

 

1: Introduction

As Amitav Ghosh has argued in The Great Derangement (2016), perhaps part of the social and political inertia preventing meaningful action against climate change has stemmed from the unwillingness or inability of writers and artists to represent climate change as a real, immediate and tangible threat. Part of this, Ghosh speculates, is the paradigmatic problem of realist novels and movies, in which the kinds of extreme events associated with climate change seem absurd and out of place (Ghosh 2016: 30-33), combined with an inability of conventional narrative to account for events that happen on vast historical and geological scales (ibid: 61-2), and the expectation that a contemporary novel tell an ‘individual moral adventure’ rather than a tale of collective predicament (ibid: 77-78). Timothy Clark (2015) additionally notes that even in narratives deemed to be grappling with complex Anthropocene issues, reader interest relies mainly on investment with character-based conflict and resolution rather than the broader ecological implications of events also depicted therein. Poetry, on the other hand, is temporally flexible and has fewer obligations to plot, structure or closure, which according to Lidström & Garrard (2014) makes it a particularly promising place to look for effective climate change representation:

Poems depend on unique formal qualities, and are perhaps even more than other literary genres animated by and able to contain open-ended, multiple and even contradictory levels of meaning. This makes them especially interesting to look to for images that challenge established patterns of environmental thought and address complex, labyrinthine twenty-first century human-environment relations between local and global, social and ecological, perception and imagination.’ (ibid: 37)

However, there are numerous question marks over what poetic practice constitutes effective climate change representation, or whether poets have generally been able to write the kinds of climate change poetry of Lidström and Garrard’s description. As Matthew Griffiths (2017) has argued, much existing climate change poetry, particularly of the like of the standalone anthologised poems that have appeared in, for example, the Guardian, are either overly polemical or overly simplified readings of the climate change predicament, or rely on a problematised rendering of a reified, romantic version of nature of the kind that should be absolutely called into question by the Anthropocene. Similarly, in a survey of existing climate change poetry anthologies, Lucy Burnett observes that ‘there is very little evidence of formal experimentation in response to the complexity of climate change, suggesting an uncomplicated stance on poetry’s capacity to capture the evidence, the debate and the consequences of climatic change through language’ (2018: 173).

Burnett argues that most existing climate change poetry relies on the replication of ideological frames that either place the reader on one side of the poem or the other. Indeed, poetically broaching climate change at all seems to require a certain amount of breaking with the old ‘show, don’t tell’ maxim. Because of the subject’s complexity, so much about communicating climate change by necessity often relies on skipping over assumed knowledge or invoking tropes as a method of shorthand. The problem remains, recalling John Shoptaw, ‘How can an ecopoem usher us into a new environmental imagination without teaching us a tiresome lesson?’ (Shoptaw 2016: 401). Poems which (understandably) fall into the same trap too easily risk being didactic or polemical, preaching to the converted, or reciting cliché. As Burnett notes of one anthology (taken as illustrative of the broader problem):

The poems collected in And This Global Warming are illustrative, and taken as a whole, appear surprisingly comfortable with communicating explicit ‘messages’. The poets repeatedly sum up their meaning in the last few lines, as if aiming to find neat resolutions, which climate change itself does not offer. (Burnett 2018: 173)

In view of the apparent existing generic limitations, some authors have offered various suggestions as to how we might better conceive of a climate change poetics: Griffiths has argued for a larger consideration of modernist poetics; Walt Hunter more recently argued for the potential re-emergence of the prospect poem (2019); Bristow examined the effectiveness of three different volumes of lyric poetry in The Anthropocene Lyric (2015). Without arguing to the contrary of these offerings, I’d like to present a slightly more prosaic possibility informing a structural necessity for climate change poetry: length.

In part this may be a simple practical necessity — if the problem inherent in writing about climate change is, as Timothy Clark put it, the problem with conceiving of ‘everything at once’ with ‘an implosion of scales’ (2012: 152), magnitude is required to organise and contextualise shifting between points of knowledge. Indeed, Lynn Keller quotes Rachel Blau DuPlessis as declaring that a defining feature of long poems is ‘the ambition to get everything in, inclusively, reflexively, monumentally’ (DuPlessis 1985: 278-79, in Keller 1992: 305). Long poetry might be seen as a response to a problem that cannot be boiled down, cannot be simplified without eliding vital components of the problem. If long poems derive from a lineage of writing that attempted to perform a totalising work of culture, a contemporary ecological long poem might therefore be attempting to capture the totality of a problem that continually evades action, that is very much of the present moment precisely in being both everywhere and nowhere:

Just as the crisis of the great ideologies of modernity rendered the world ever more hypercomplex, multicentric, and elusive, so literature embraced in an ever more desperate fashion ambitious and unending encyclopedic projects, destined inevitably to remain incomplete (Ercolino 2014: 32)

If a short climate change poem is liable to give the reader an ‘out’ by being either too ambiguous or too forceful in its language, a long poem might be seen as an attempt to immerse the reader in the subject while closing off typical avenues of deferment. Contemporary long poems are particularly suited to a time where the disparity between what one sees and what one is told clashes repeatedly in the lived experience, as articulated by DuPlessis:

I take long poems — it is virtually an unarguable assumption — to concern things that are too large in relation to things that are too small — it is a work about scale far beyond any humanist tempering. By too large I mean the universe, the earth, our history and politics, the sense of the past, and the more febrile sense of the future: in short, plethora, hyper-stimulation, an overwhelmedness to which one responds. (DuPlessis 2008, in Collins 2018: 67)

Long poems are, of course, nothing new. A generic descendent of some of the earliest forms of literature, they’ve arguably never really gone away, though history shows variations of the form rising and falling in popularity over the past several hundred years. The contradiction implied by the name ‘long poem’ points to the perpetually unstable categorisation of long poetry and its ever-fluid hybridisation into other genres such as the verse novel (Skebe 2010). I do not wish to enter into a debate here about where one hybrid genre begins and another ends, but merely to observe that it is partially this amenability to crossing genre lines that makes long poetry a receptive medium for writing about problems particular to the Anthropocene, which are difficult to contain within assumed boundaries of specialist knowledge. Further, the cross-magnitude capabilities that concern long poems are exactly what makes the form a potential site for the representation of ‘an implosion of scales’ that contemporary crises, not least climate change, demands. Griffiths, for example, notes that while Motion’s climate change poem ‘The Sorcerer’s Mirror’ (2008), which is a series of five sonnets, has the narrator return inside at the end of the sequence in what Griffiths sees as a symbolic act of retreating from the problem, the ‘longer scope’ of Jorie Graham’s modernist poems gives the author ‘the opportunity to show what such turning away might mean in the changing climate’ (Griffiths 2017: 171).

But perhaps a more pertinent asset of poetic magnitude is how it has the capacity to enable engagement with those issues, by allowing fragments of information to be cross-connected in a way that allows externalities to be reconfigured. Where epic poems formerly sought to compose narrative based on the totality of a culture, Egan (2009) suggests the modern long poem attempts to arrange narrative from within a society that no longer shares a unified set of values:

Modern long poems assume that no single narrative exists to explain a culture anymore, so materials are discontinuous and accumulate meaning in ways other than linear logic or narrative. These poems often use strategies of parataxis and juxtaposition to address the alienation and fragmentation of modern life, forcing the reader to engage in process of meaning-making within the poem. (ibid: 970)

This process of making meaning in long poems is vital for reading (and composition) of large-scale crises whose causes and solutions are deeply entwined with broader problems of culture and politics. But this process is, I would argue, enjoyable, or perhaps more accurately long poetry allows the process of reading crisis to be as enjoyable as it ever can be.

To explore this notion, I’m going to discuss two ecological long poems — ‘Hymn to Life’ by Timothy Donnelly (2014), and ‘Wildfire’ by Andrea Brady (2010) — which, though somewhat differing in mode and subject, each demonstrate how length is a structuring quality through which complex Anthropocene problems can be investigated or represented; similarly, how length allows them to avoid the various pitfalls of oversimplification. Neither of these poems are, I think it is fair to add, strictly poems about climate change, although both touch on and allude to mechanisms of climate change in their broader ecological investigations of Anthropogenic species loss (Donnelly) and the Iraq War (Brady). Rather, I hope to show how I think this expansive mode of poetry-making presents possibilities for creative engagement with climate change.

 

2: Meaning Across Length

Befitting the arbitrary and genre-flexible definitions of the long poem, both ‘Hymn to Life’ and ‘Wildfire’ present structural and stylistic similarities while appearing to operate on contrasting scales and models. Both, for instance, have been published as single-poem standalone chapbooks. However, they do otherwise differ markedly in form. Donnelly’s ‘Hymn to Life’ is 360 lines long with no formal subdivisions but divided evenly into 60 sestets. Brady’s ‘Wildfire’, by comparison, is both lengthier and structurally amorphous, with 1300 lines in the main body of the poem, divided unevenly into ten chapters or sections, most containing numbered subsections, and each of those built of multiple stanzas of irregular lengths. The online version of ‘Wildfire’ also contains hyperlinks to an array of supporting material, including images, intertextual literary quotations, explanatory information (sometimes also in verse form), banal media passages, supporting data and metatextual notes. While some of this is directly quoted, some is written in verse, making it difficult to say exactly how long the poem is, or indeed arguably where lines around the poem are drawn.

Despite their apparent formal differences, both poems utilise length to render the poetic space as a large container of information and knowledge. They both present a multitude of disparate references to events real and fictional; both reference real events and specifics of events (various lost species in ‘Hymn to Life’, events of the Iraq war in ‘Wildfire’, the latter of which is backed up and elucidated with linked supporting documentation), though in both cases these are continuously interlinked with references to myth and history. As a result, they build tapestries of implicative connection — not explicative of exactly how particular species have gone extinct or how the Iraq war begun, but something that stretches deeper to a spiritual or cultural investigation. This might be read as both attempting to contain or make sense of an excess of available information and using the aesthetics of navigating excess to speak on the process of knowing.

In ‘Wildfire’ the connecting of reference points tends to happen across a larger space. As a result, there is a continual muddling of the interim text. The speaker’s position is less clear, or shifting, so an ‘I’ of one verse might seem to be the author’s, while the ‘I’ of another verse might be someone else’s, though for long sections in between, the first person is absent entirely. In the same breath, there is less to indicate whether information is being remembered or lived, in the present, thereby collapsing the space between recalled myth and current event.

Wildfire is tame, modified clawed
broiler and combust engine made in the infants of cities
though energy is natural, a fountain
arcs illumination from Texas to Medes
depending on the altruistic solar centre. 

Medes, as the supporting link reads, is a name given to ancient Persia, and that oil was known as ‘Persian fire’, with a series of quotations of mentioned instances of crude oil in antiquity. This connection forms the basis of a pattern of interposing historical information with the contemporary, which is repeated throughout ‘Wildfire’, as it intersperses reflections on recent events with excerpts from history.

In ‘Hymn to Life’ the use of reference points is more varied, orienting a catalogue of species loss along with telling of myth and ancient history, as well as more recent histories such as references to and from popular music and film. Simple factual sounding statements are parataxically alternated with long prose sentences containing images within other images, references within references, from which a parallel version of the world emerges. But it is also a poem that requires readers to make their own connections both within the text and beyond it. By the poem’s logic, events can be traced through common connections: geographic (same place, different time); similar date (same year, different place); or commonalities such as similar names or colours.

An illustration of the web-weaving process of ‘Hymn to Life’ can be seen from stanzas 25 through to 28. In stanza 25, 1902 is a date noted to be the common ancestor of all known ‘chocolate cosmos’ plants, which forms a link to ‘the last known Rocky Mountain locust ever to appear’. The locust, we are told, appeared in ‘a glistening storm’, as happens in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘On the Banks / of Plum Creek, first of three books spectered by prototypical / beeotch Nellie Oleson’. In stanza 26, the name ‘Nellie’ is a recurring reference that connects fragments of information over the next several stanzas. Two stanzas later we are connected to another Nelly, as in the artist who released the song ‘Hot in Herre’ in 2002. A third Nellie/Nelly later emerges when Donnelly pivots to the image of Hawaiian crows going extinct in the wild in 2002 with ‘a Nelly’ somewhere on the radio, the unwritten implication — as I read it — here being Nelly Furtado's hit single ‘I'm like a bird’, which was released in 2000. The author also mentions that the first Nellie, Nellie Oleson, was supposedly ‘based on three distinct historical persons’, an act echoed by the poem, which by association blurs three distinct identities of Nellie/Nelly — one fictional, one artistic nom-de-plum, and one who was born Nelly but who only appears in the poem by associative logic — as it connects the extinctions of two different species across space and time, implicated within acts of cultural consumption and production.

In this way, ‘Hymn to Life’ arguably performs a kind of poetic trick or illusion; by linking information across the poem, it dangles the cause (or perhaps solution) of the catalogued species loss just beyond the margins. This is repeated throughout the poem as the rolling frame of reference opens up new fragments without ever completely closing each previous one. Part of this is by its parataxical use of juxtaposed information; the reader never knows, instinctively, which information is the most relevant or necessary, and thus must assume on the first pass that all are.

For example, each of the Nellie/Nellys referenced in the above section inspires their own tangential bits of information, some of which go on to contribute to other connecting threads of information. ‘Hot in Herre’, we are told, samples Neil Young and Chuck Brown, and is therefore a gateway for the appearance of more information about both these people in the subsequent stanzas. Neil Young goes on to provide the melancholic epitaph of the sort that gets invoked throughout the poem: ‘We are leaving, we are gone’ — which by its contextualisation here evokes the continual loss of species, with the plural ‘we’ implicating a spiritual or actual loss of humanity as a result of the species’ loss. This is before the line ‘come with us all along’ is set directly next to the fragment ‘Alala is the name for the Hawaiian crow in Hawaiian’, thereby alliteratively linking this song lyric with the Hawaiian crow. Chuck Brown links to the next section because the surname Brown also describes a colour, which handily is part of the common name of lots of species, so when Donnelly then writes ‘But there were no dire wolves, no Florida black wolves, and no Texas reds’ it feels like a natural transition, even though the following stanza otherwise seems a stark break from the thickly interconnected ones preceding it.

Arguably this sense of interconnected magnitude may evoke a sublime response in the reader, which is part of the poem’s functional aesthetic drawcard. The sublime is an aesthetic variously described by philosophers including Longinus, Kant and Burke, with contemporary variations such as ‘the postmodern sublime’ or ‘the ecosublime’. What all these have in common, according to Kainulainen, is ‘an event or encounter with something so vast that it escapes all attempts to apprehend it fully’ (2013: 111). This is particular to poems such as ‘Hymn to Life’ and ‘Wildfire’ because the size and interconnectedness of the information presented in the poem creates the perception of a problem that is big, unmanageable. To read ‘Hymn to Life’ is to be overwhelmed both by the scale of loss and the inextricability of cause and event through human history. To read ‘Wildfire’ is to be caught in the unescapable tract of self-iterative histories. These long poems and the way they use accumulated information for aesthetic effect may therefore suggest a method of writing about big, undecidable and hard to express problems such as climate change. Indeed, Maggie Kainulainen suggests that a sublime encounter with climate change may be a way through the representational problems that the issue poses:

In order for climate change to be an agent of radical change, to motivate an active rejection of “the malady of the quotidian,” we have to think big, bigger than we know how, and bear witness to the deep interconnection and undecidability that climate change reveals. I argue that this revelation requires an encounter with climate change as a sublime object, the experience of which constitutes an ethical event. (2013: 111)

Bearing ‘witness to the deep interconnection and undecidability’ and thinking ‘big, bigger than we know how’ do, I argue, point to the role for long poetry in representing and encountering climate change in literature. The long poems of Donnelly and Brady examined here exhibit, in their fragmentary interconnectedness, a literary technique sometimes referred to as maximalism.

Maximalism — the tendency towards excess — creates a world in itself and of itself, as long as meaning is not inherent in the world and must be (re)created, but lies deep inside, and not on the surface. Maximalism uses great details to set up scenes; it allows the writers to experiment with as many different themes, symbols, and literary motifs as they wish, and elaborate more on characters, to alternate — due to its flexibility and richness of the language — rhythms, plans, even realities. (Al-Gareeb 2018: 18)

Maximalism is more often identified in contemporary novels (see Ercolino, The Maximalist Novel (2014)), though ‘tendency towards excess’ is certainly a trait shared by ‘Hymn to Life’, ‘Wildfire’ and many other long poems. Still, there are arguments as to why relying on such an approach to representation might be inherently limited, such as the inherent difficulty (perhaps pretentiousness) of maximalism and its demands on the attention spans of readers. One reviewer observes, for example, that for all the qualities of ‘Hymn to Life’, many readers admit to not finishing it due to its length and repetitions (Ebersole 2015). Of Kainulainen’s call for sublime encounters with climate change, Timothy Clark argues that ‘[i]t is hard, however, to endorse here the assumption that knowledge of interconnection must somehow lead to an ethic of care’ (2015: 188); Imre Szeman (2013) has noted in documentaries that showing the scale of the problem may have the opposite to the desired effect, by paralysing the viewer and positioning them as helpless against a wave of events far beyond their control.

 

3: Meaning Beyond Length

Both ‘Hymn to Life’ and ‘Wildfire’ point to their incompleteness, or rather, they point to an excess of information that works not only within the poem but also outside it. In ‘Wildfire’ this is true in the formal shape of the text, where links within the poem direct the reader to extraneous information that is both catalogued by the walls of the website that the poem resides in and completely external to it. As Lucy Collins describes, ‘the movement of fire is mimicked in Wildfire by its use of print and digital modes: the text is not contained within the printed page but spreads quickly through the hyperlinks of the online text, incorporating a vast range of other resources, extending and complicating our reading of the poem’ (2017: 65).

The metatextual referencing and hyperlinking draw attention to the poem as performing the process of enquiry. Collins acknowledges that Brady sees the poem as acting as a commentary upon itself:

Yet the commentary requires a text as its basis for reference, and this sequence explores its own identity as a printed creative work, at the same time as it acknowledges its dependence on a diverse range of historical, political and scientific texts, that contend with one another beyond the boundaries of the poem. Thus, networks of meaning are both created and acknowledged to be partial. (ibid: 68-9)

This kind of self-questioning, open-ended iterative meaning is essential to the purpose of the ecological long poem, because it evokes the processes of investigation and, by complicating its own findings, asks the reader to do the same.

Much like ‘Wildfire’, ‘Hymn to Life’ is a poem self-consciously constructed through instantaneous access to the apparently infinite information of the internet. It is a poem built of implied rather than actual hyperlinks, in that it can be seen to be following a train of thought of the author as one connection is made into another. The relation of the poem’s excess of information to the process of finding the information is made explicit in certain lines: ‘to quote / The Owl Pages, sweet dream of a website whose first FAQ asks, / ‘I’ve seen an owl, can you tell me what kind it is?’’ The process asks a question of readers who can easily investigate and clarify the poem’s lines of material themselves. A Neil Young song is easy to look up on Youtube, as is the one by Chuck Brown. On Wikipedia one can read about The Rocky Mountain Locust, proposed theories for why it went extinct, as well as its appearance in The Little House of the Prairie. And the same can be done for all the hundreds of locations, movies, myths, historical events, and extinct species of plant and animal that are referenced throughout ‘Hymn to Life’. This simultaneously demystifies and obfuscates the process of composition — it demonstrates how connections and narrative, or the illusion thereof, can be made from the excess of information endemic to contemporary conditions of systemic collapse. The poem is aware of and propelling this tension between meaning and meaningless, chaos and order, as foreshadowed in stanzas 18-19:

All these gains and losses, so mysterious
from a distance, held together it has felt by nothing stronger
than momentum, like a series of bicycle accidents or a pattern
in the pomegranate, come to hint at a logic in time, but whether
it’s more fitting to say that they promise to reveal it or else

threaten to is debatable. …

The appearance of being simultaneously disparate yet connected, stretched and repeated over the vast poetic space, within which historical time and geographic space is also collapsed, gives the reader the impression of having a puzzle to solve, or the sense that if they follow the connections closely enough, they may come to understand the mechanisms of loss seeming to run just beyond the margins of the poem. This is, arguably, the pleasure of reading ‘Hymn to Life’ — what makes it readable despite and because of its length. Both poems, meanwhile, complicate and blur the lines separating coincidence and causality, adding both the appearance of depth and the necessity for the reader to do their own further searching.

‘Hymn to Life’ also contains a fair amount of flotsam, fragments of information that seem to lead nowhere in particular. To take, again, the ‘Nellie’ example from stanzas 25-26: ‘…In gingham and curls Nellie Oleson was played / by Alison Arngrim in the 1970s TV adaptation. The Wife of Bath / was also an Alyson. An Angrim is father to the outlaw Gorlim / in Tolkein’s Middle-earth mythos.’ Interestingly, Alison Arngrim seems to have nothing more to do with the poem. Neither does the Wife of Bath; nor does Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythos. They seemingly have no purpose in linking on to further fragments, and therefore don’t appear to be functionally propelling the poem on to the next catalogued species loss (excepting, arguably, that mentioning the Wife of Bath is a lateral image link to the next sentence, ‘They say to run the tap / as hot as you can stand’, which in turn sets up the mentioning of ‘Hot in Herre’ by Nelly). Rather, they perform other functions of both opening the poem’s world out to intertextual fictional worlds (something both ‘Hymn to Life’ and ‘Wildfire’ do repeatedly throughout), and creating false-leads through which the reader has to sift.

Interconnected, information-rich long poems may thereby evoke what art historian Neil Harris termed ‘the operational aesthetic’ which is pleasure derived from seeing how complex systems come together (cf Lemenager 2014: 172). Harris linked the operational aesthetic to the functions of museums, but more recently Ilka Brasch demonstrated how the same is an underpinning aesthetic of detective genre fiction:

The difference between the story’s detective and its readers results from contingency: within the narrative world of the story, the detective faces the full array of possible metaphoric chess moves, that is, of clues and hints, which he has to register attentively to avoid missing the aspects pertaining to his case. The readers, by contrast, only register the choice of options that are mediated by the text. Again, attention is vital, as now almost the full amount of clues or aspects of information become puzzle pieces of larger chains of events. The enjoyment now lies in the ways in which the clues interlink.’ (2018: 46)

In ‘Hymn to Life’ the reader is propelled to make connections across and outside the text in order to ‘solve’ what renders, aesthetically, as mystery. What seems like an overwhelming amount of information then becomes engaging for the reader, like a giant puzzle that suggests, through the open-endedness of the poetic form, the possibility of solution, without ever having to provide it. The poem thereby becomes a window into further engagement with the topic, a representational stepping-stone. The same, it might be suggested, could be done for climate change or other slow violence problems that evade representation. The operational aesthetic promisingly uses the scale of these problems as part of the attraction of engagement, offering a possible, albeit difficult approach for writers for whom the vastness of the issues at hand make us less likely to tackle them. This is particularly pronounced in the long poem because it builds on the difficulty of saying anything closed-ended or conclusive about climate change. Rather, the process of representation becomes about the finding out — in fact relies on the idea ‘that such chains of events can be more interesting than their suspended resolution’ (Brash 2018: 49). Arguably, then, this aesthetic acts as complementary counterpoint to the sublime response, which alone is liable to make the reader turn away.

By comparison, detectional voice is less prominent in ‘Wildfire’. The distances between specific references are often greater, and the directed relationship between them less clear, owing to the shifting ‘I’ perspective. To a degree, there is no equivalent sense that ‘Wildfire’ can be ‘solved’ by focused unpicking, given the often-unresolvable perspective within positional fragments of text. Take, for example, the start of CHRONIC, section 4 (lines 1-5): 

Fragmentation set off among the fire-fighters,
each piece has designs on an individual
but the movement of the avant-garde
plans to enrapture whole cities
lends to the shade the appearance of shining.

Here the poem seems to lack a clear narratorial perspective. The mixed tense and passive voice imply a sequence of events that has seemingly both happened and is bound to happen; meanwhile, the lack of immediate reference points allows the text to be acting as self-commentary. But the hyperlinks of the first and fifth lines reorient the section to a prior history — the first to information about the intentional fragmentation of fire-bombing used by the US against Germany in World War 2, the fifth to an excerpt on phosphor, described as ‘one of the first products of decay’ of human bodies in Die Geschichte der Seele (The History of the Soul) by Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert (1850). The initial reading of the stanza is complicated, rather than explained, by the links in the text, adding potential layers of meaning to what is initially obtained.

 

4. Conclusion

‘Hymn to Life’ and ‘Wildfire’ demonstrate the potential of long poems to represent and communicate complex Anthropocene issues of ecology. Length allows for the placement of the vast, often contradictory information associated with ‘a problem’ throughout a text, rather than relying on the dense recitation of the problem in a way that inherently reproduces its ideological frame. Length allows for the exploration of less obvious connections between culture, politics, history and the events in which their outcomes are stark. Length allows for an arrangement of information around a topic that invites exploration and participation from the reader to make sense of it. Length allows the placement of the author — and the creation of the text — to be intertwined with the processes that the text is seeking to depict, thereby complicating the position of writer as straightforward teller of information to the reader.

A potential climate change long poem, along these lines, might therefore hypothetically use the plethora of available data on the many varying causes and symptoms of climate change, tied into a scenario recalling the author’s lived experience and expectations of change to come. Ideally by asking the reader to work through the information to make sense of the text, the reader is placed in the detective’s position of seeking out the meaning rather than having the meaning directly taught to them. This arrangement works neatly for us, because climate change is, at its core, a problem of excess, both in the philosophical sense, and in what it requires to communicate.

What the exact implications of a broader call for more information-rich ‘long poems’ on climate change are within the realms of publishing practices are less clear; it is difficult to be prescriptive without first more explicitly surveying the existing field. A potential hindrance may be that within the already-limited confines of poetry publishing possibilities, the single (short) poem fits more neatly into the paradigms and formats of most poetry anthologies and journals, so there are continued incentives for poets to work in these formats, especially given that long poems can arguably require larger amounts of time and energy for a lowered chance of publication. Similarly, there may be further questions about whether most readers will be happy to engage with long poems or are more likely to encounter structural length itself as a deterrent to further inquiry. However, considerations of creative labour and deeper investigations of reader habits are beyond the scope of this essay. For now it is enough to say that long poems may have the ability to create space for the kinds of complex renderings of climate change that might speak more truly to the scale and scope of the problem than many forms of representation seem to allow.

 

Works cited: 

 

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