Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Poetry & Pollution

Those who know me well would never (I dare say) accuse me of sticking my head in the sand about world events. I read depressing things all the time (though less than I used to). When you write about science, especially the environment, it comes with the territory.
However, one thing I refuse to read about in detail - and sometimes read about at all - is an oil spill. My empathy with filth-covered creatures, and even with seaweed dotted with tar blobs, goes on high alert. It's just too painful. Time for me to be selfish and turn the page. In a way, the reports are only preaching to the converted (I of the Church of No-Oil, don't you know).
But plenty of people are far from converted, yet they too turn the page. What of them? Is a sickening litany of corporate incompetence or criminality, dying birds, poisoned turtles, ruined livelihoods, and environmental devastation the best way to tell them we need to change our energy needs sooner rather than later?
If not, then maybe we should use another way into the mind: through the heart. A novel called Uncle Tom's Cabin alerted people to the plight of slaves - undoing more legalized brutality than any number of petitions gathered by well-meaning abolitionists. Poetry can also appeal to our natural tendency to empathize with fellow humans in trouble and even with other species - even with the abstraction called an ecosystem.
In the excellent on-line environmental journal Terrain.org, run by my friend Simmons Buntin out of Arizona, a recent post features the Chilean poet and Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda's poem about a terremoto (earthquake), almost presaging the Big One of 1960. (It was the biggest ever recorded anywhere, by the way: an 8.8.) Although he wasn't commenting on that seismic event - or even on an earthquake, being an intensely patriotic and political man - it got me thinking about communication of world-scale events.
Where are our modern observers of environmental change?
Ian McEwan's latest book, Solar, concerns climate change. I hope more novelists as clever as he will follow suit. What of other creative genres?
I imagine there will be "nature" poets as long as poetry exists, but environmental poetry is something else. It is more than an "is" (the way things are). It is an "ought" (the way things should be). In other words, it is commentary. As vitally important as journalism may be, the commentary found in good environmental poetry could really make a difference. Maybe "the environment" won't be #176 on a list of promises next time there's a major election.

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