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Poetry can help us understand how urgent the climate crisis is
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Poetry can help us understand how urgent the climate crisis is


I discovered Ellen Bass’ poem, Birdsong from My PatioDuring the first UK lockdown. My hedge was full of sparrows that seemed to be singing all the time. I expected to see and hear them in this poem too and, at first, I did: “I’ve never heard this much song, trills pure as crystal bells”. However, images of “acid rain”, “pesticides”, “contaminated insects” and “thin-shelled eggs” moved swiftly in. Instead of feeling joyful, I was left reeling by the poem. What have we done with our birds? What have our actions done to the planet?

Climate change is widely recognized as a serious threat. biggest threatof the 21st Century. It is getting worse we can expectIncreased storms, heatwaves and other extreme weather events are threatening the survival of many people on this planet. At COP26 in Glasgow, politicians met to discuss ways to work together to reverse and slow down some of these damage.

While attendees of the conference will likely have a good understanding of climate change, Jorie Graham, a poet, suggests that they still need to learn more. may not “feel” it. Environmental activists are asking for help communicating the effects of climate change to politicians and the public. This means that people need to be able to empathise and understand the consequences of climate change in order to feel compelled by it.

In an interview for the Guardian, poet Roger Robinson said that “poems are empathy machines”. This is supported by research. One recent paperFor example, poetry can increase empathy in readers, according to a study. This can make it an effective tool for conveying urgent messages and changing behaviours.

Feeling the pain

Poetry can be used to abstract or diffuse complex issues like climate change by using imagery, metaphor, narrative, and even white space. more real to readers. A poem can act as a witnessto illustrate how climate change affects particular animals or plants, or to explain phenomena such as global warming. For instance, Gillian Clarke’s sonnet Glacier witnesses the melting of Greenland’s glacier and calls for science to fix what has happened since:

The century of waste
It has pierced the sky above the Pole.

Two elephants.
The decline of elephants is mourned in Matthew Olzmann’s Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years from Now.
Craig Morrison/Shutterstock

Poems are also able to act as visions. the futureTo highlight the positive changes we can make in today’s world. For instance, Matthew Olzmann’s Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years from NowDescribes how someone who lives in a desolate future will believe we hate our planet.

Most likely, we think you hated the Elephant.
The golden toad, thylacine, and all other variations
Whales may be harpooned, or hacked to extinction.

It must seem that we were trying to leave you alone.
But benzene and mercury, the stomachs
See a seagull swarming with plastic and jet fuel.

Olzmann shows how our actions can be so starkly different from how we feel about these animals, and the natural world. These are things we enjoy, that we love, but treat with such disregard. Jane Hirshfield’s Let Them Not SaySimilar sentiments can be heard about how history will view us and calls for change before its too late.

Let them not say:    they did nothing.
We didn’t have enough.

Both Olzmann and Hirshfield’s poems reveal a bleak vision of the future which, in turn, can inspire empathy and action in readers now.

Resistance and hope

There are also poems that resist capitalist systems. some argueContinue to fuel the climate crisis. This can be seen in David Sergeant’s Language of ChangeThe book, which is written by late capitalism and focuses on whether it should continue to destroy the planet or alter its ways.

A protester holds up a poster in front of chimneys pumping out smoke.
In David Sergeant’s Language of Change, he calls for resistance against polluting companies.
Joe Seer/Shutterstock

There are also poems that attempt to reconcile despair with hope and the way humans have loved and let down their world. EveningThis powerful example is by Dorianne Laux. It notes the beauty, and possibility, that break through the darkness on this dying planet.

We know we are doomed.
done for, damned and still
The light reaches us, falls
Even now, we can count on our shoulders

Like many others, I have been aware for years of the climate crisis and have followed the advice. how I can help. However, it wasn’t until I read Birdsong from My PatioI felt the full emotional effect of climate change. Then, I felt the urgency to act on a larger scale. Since reading this poem (and many others after it), I have been researching ways to reduce the impact of climate change on my life. beloved birdsI have donated to environmental campaigns and started writing my own ecopoetry.

And I’m not the only one. Research suggestsThis empathy could lead to a more compassionate approach to climate change. Grab a book, a poem or a second-hand book. The world will be grateful.

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