by Samuel Tongue
In the life sciences, there is an experimental hypothesis that suggests the following: as an organism suffers the impact of external stressors – disease or drought, perhaps – it may produce an ‘enhanced reproductive effort’, or distress crop, in an attempt to maintain its population levels. For example, when an immune response is generated, male blue-footed boobies increase their time spent parenting, house sparrows lay replacement clutches, Australian alpine tree frogs produce more eggs. This response is known as the terminal investment hypothesis, and whilst still hotly debated, proves an apt metaphor when it comes to thinking about ecopoetics.
As more and more writers engage with the enormity of the sixth mass extinction event within which we live, move, and have our being, more and more writing is circulating, like spores on the wind. In the last eighteen months or so there has been a distress crop of ecopoetry anthologies: Out of Time: Poetry from the Climate Emergency (ed. Kate Simpson, Valley Press); 100 Poems to Save the Earth (eds. Zoë Brigley & Kristian Evans, Seren); Rewilding: An Ecopoetic Anthology (Crested-Tit Collective); and The weird folds: everyday poems from the Anthropocene (eds. Maria Sledmere and Rhian Williams, Dostoevsky Wannabe). Although all very different beasts, each collection curates a series of poetic responses and interventions in how the nature-culture of the Anthropocene can be represented, linguistically, visually, sensuously. It is also no coincidence that these anthologies have bloomed during the pandemic, a present danger directly brought about and transmitted by our globalised encroachment on ‘natural’ or non-human space.
I always shy from the oft-quoted, contextless, W. H. Auden line that “poetry make nothing happen” as so many commentators do not follow the poem through to the infinitely more compelling line: “it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth” (‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’). For me, ecopoetics is this mouth, this way of speaking and listening, of paying attention. For the panel ‘Never the New Normal’, I wanted to hear poets who know that poetry is the mouthing of many things, a communicative element in the jumble of other elements, not separate from but immersed in the environments we shape and by which we are shaped. Notions of the ‘new normal’ will never be able to account for how standing stones might speak in riddles, (‘Dolmen’, Jen Hadfield) or how a storm of beech nuts drums the drowning intensity of pain (‘Mast Year/Helplessness Subscale’, Polly Atkin).
These poems, written and experienced, are ecopoetic happenings that are utterly invested in survival in the sense of survivre, living on and, I would say, living in, living with. The long list of impacts being delivered by climate collapse and (our own?) species extinction is impossible to grasp, and terrifying in its immensity. When I personally feel overwhelmed, threatened, solastalgic, in the face of this, I need a poetics that can mouth not platitudes but other truths, inhuman and human alternative realities, microscopic and macroscopic across the spaces made by the poem. I need a language I can trust. And this is what I find in the work of these poets.