The sole business of poetry

Essays Published May 5, 2011 in A talk given at the Tagore Festival in Devon, May 2011

Then we will go to Europe, go
to Venice or Berlin, and live like Rilke
in communes of verse and there,
maybe there, we will shake off this disease

which dulls our senses and dulls everything
and spreads like aluminium
and clings like a plastic bag in a high branch,
like crude to a gannet’s feathers. Or

if not in the cities then in the forests
or in red caves in red deserts
or around the craters of gunungs in the archipelago
or among sandstone towers in the valleys of the West.
Oh —

I don’t know. Just take me
somewhere it has not yet reached, somewhere
lonely and still real and let me
stand there and feel nothing
and lose the fear and, finally,

This is a poem from my new collection, Kidland, which was published this month. It’s a poem about escape; about wanting to escape from something all-encompassing and unnameable – about wanting to find the real, the wild and the true beneath the patina of plastic which our civilisation is laying across the world – and about fearing, secretly, that it can never be found.

All my life I have been haunted by a sense of loss, and I have never been quite able to pin it down. But I think, now, that I am beginning to understand it. I think, too, that I am not the only one who feels it. I think, in fact, that it is felt, increasingly, all over the world.

One of my favourite English poets is also one of the most understated, and perhaps underrated. Edward Thomas experienced a painfully brief flowering of his creativity – only a few years of verse, unnoticed in his lifetime – before he went to the trenches in World War One and was silenced by the guns. His poems are close-up studies of the English south country – my homeland and his – in its last Golden Age; the days before its identity and meaning were lost forever, before the war and the car and the suburbs ate it alive.

In his poem ‘Lob’ he writes of being

At hawthorn-time in Wiltshire travelling
In search of something chance would never bring

Thomas travelled the pre-modern lanes alone, on foot, and wrote of what he found. He travelled before the national grid and the motorways, before the bombing planes and the suburbs and the business parks and the factory shops. At hawthorn time in Wiltshire today the hawthorn can still make you catch your breath, but Thomas’ world is long gone.

In his introduction to the Selected Poems of Edward Thomas, his namesake, the Welsh poet R. S. Thomas, wrote that ‘somewhere beyond the borders of Thomas’ mind, there was a world he could never quite come at.’ That phrase has always stuck with me. R. S. Thomas was referring – as he always referred – to a mystical Welshness of the blood which he offered as an explanation for ‘the vein of melancholy and dissatisfaction which runs through Edward Thomas’ verse.’

But I’m not sure that the Celtic imagination was what Edward Thomas was trying to come at in his writing. I think, rather, that his dissatisfaction, and the poems which flowed from it, may have been a result of living in a world on the brink. A coming European war hung over the rural railway stations and hawthorn lanes of which Thomas wrote and, beyond that, the tearing-up of everything he loved in the English countryside.

In another of his poems, ‘First known when lost’, he writes:

I never noticed it until
’twas gone – the narrow copse
Where now the woodman lops
The last of the willows with his bill

Thomas never lived to see what industrial agriculture, mass car ownership or consumer capitalism would do to that countryside, but I think he must have felt, on those walks down the holloways, a foreboding. A function of poetry is to give words to intuitions which, if expressed in prose, would fall apart under their own flimsiness; to see what is coming and try to express it and not to have it understood until everybody else can also see it, at which point they will claim that they saw it all along.

I sometimes think I might know how Edward Thomas felt. He was in love with the lanes and the downs and the people who called them home, and he knew – no, not knew, he intuited, felt, but could never quite intellectualise – that these things were flaming down a dying arc.

Edward Thomas was in love with a world that was disappearing, and all he could do was be present.

Perhaps this is a timeless human condition, or at least a European condition (we often confuse the two). Or perhaps it is just the poet’s condition. Famously, the theft of his world literally sent the poet John Clare mad. Here he is, writing of that theft in the poem ‘Enclosure’:

Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene;
No fence of ownership crept in between
To hide the prospect from the gazing eye;
Its only bondage was the circling sky …

Enclosure came, and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights, and left the poor a slave;
And memory’s pride, ere want to wealth did bow,
Is both the shadow and the substance now.

Between John Clare’s time and Edward Thomas’s time, and ours, the process of loss – and of theft – has accelerated to a scale where it is almost incomprehensible. That loss is cultural – languages disappear and ways of living are lost to us. But underlying all this is the greatest loss of all, the loss which literature, language and poetry, in the West at least, speaks of far too little – the loss of the great web of nature. The loss of life itself.

This loss is the defining characteristic of the time in which we live. It is the price paid for our superstores and cars and i-pods and breakfast cereals. This loss is who we are. This loss is what haunts me, and haunts my writing.

I was born in 1972. In that time – less than forty years – Homo sapiens sapiens has managed to kill off between a quarter and a third of all the world’s non-human life. This bald figure takes in a quarter of all land-based species, over a quarter of all marine species and nearly a third of all freshwater species. We’ve wiped out over a third of the planet’s mangrove swamps and a fifth of its coral, over a quarter of all remaining Arctic wildlife and 600,000 square kilometres of Amazon forest. Extinction rates are currently between 100 and 1000 times higher than they would likely be were humans not around. This is before we even get to climate change. And it has all happened in less than forty years.

Sit back and think about the magnitude of that. Try even to begin to understand its scale and scope and speed. You can’t; not really. Beyond a certain point, number crunching hinders rather than helps comprehension.

But what use can writing possibly be in a world like this? What can words do in response? And what, in particular, can poetry do? This tiny, specialist artform, with far more writers than readers. How can experiments in heightened language possibly have anything to say about this great Vanishing — this gathered storm beginning to break on the shores of our civilisation?

These are the wrong questions. Can poetry save the Earth? No. But then politics, economics and science are not doing a very good job either. Poetry is not here to ‘save the Earth’. But it is, perhaps, able to show us the Earth – and our relationship to it – in a way we are not used to seeing it; it is perhaps able to show us the wild truths behind the tame lies of our civilisation.


I’ve taken the title of this talk – ‘the sole business of poetry’ – from a poem by the early twentieth century Californian poet Robinson Jeffers, who is one of my inspirations. It’s a quote I use to introduce my collection, Kidland. The quote is from a poem called ‘The beauty of things’. It goes like this:

For man’s half dream; man, you might say, is nature dreaming, but rock
And water and sky are constant to feel
Greatly, and understand greatly, and express greatly, the natural
Beauty, is the sole business of poetry.
The rest’s diversion: those holy or noble sentiments, the intricate ideas,
The love, lust, longing: reasons, but not the reason.

This is a deeply radical statement. Jeffers is saying, in effect – nothing matters as much as nature; the sheer beauty of the wild Earth is reason enough in itself for its existence. By ‘nature’ in this context he means wild, beyond-human nature; constant nature. The rocks, the sea, the sky, the winds.

Jeffers, too, was haunted by the Vanishing. As a young man he moved to the wild cliffs of northern California with his wife. Here he built a stone tower and a stone cottage with his own hands, from which he observed the sea and the hawks, the forests and the cliffs. By the time he died, in 1962, that cottage and tower had been surrounded by suburban streets, cars and sprawl, which had careered out from the town of Carmel eight miles away.

In his own life, in other words, Jeffers had seen the loss advancing. He wrote of it in his poem ‘Carmel Point’. Many of us, approaching a subject like this – the destruction of a place we love – might express bitterness, anger or sorrow. But Jeffers did something else. He expressed stoicism. This is the poem:

The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses-
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rockheads-
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff. As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

‘We must unhumanize our views a little.’ This is the essence of this poet’s message; a message he developed as a response to – and a defence from — the breakneck ‘development’ of the American golden age. ‘Development’, of course, is just another word for destruction, and the American version was eating up the wild world which the poet loved. Jeffers was an early proponent of a worldview we now call ‘deep ecology’. For a deep ecologist, humanity is neither unimportant not supremely important. We are one animal amongst many, and we don’t have the right to eliminate life in order to turn the world to a more convenient shape.

Jeffers died before the term ‘deep ecology’ was coined. He gave his personal poetic philosophy another name: ‘inhumanism.’ This, he wrote, was:

A shifting of emphasis and significance from man to notman; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence…. This manner of thought and feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist…. It offers a reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead of love, hate and envy…. it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty.

If, as a writer, you take this perspective seriously, it will be transformational. This is not a focus on language or on politics, on narrow human sensibilities or on the minutiae of everyday existence in the over-developed world. It is a focus on Earth; on deep nature and deep time. This is ‘nature poetry’ which tries to view the world from a perspective which is not actually human.


Possibly the times we are living in are unprecedented. Certainly there’s been nothing like this scale of mass destruction of nature in known human history. If this is true – if this time is genuinely new – then the way we speak of it, the stories we tell about it, need to be new too. Or, if not new, they need to be very different. We need different stories, and we need a different perspective.

One of these perspectives is what Jeffers called ‘inhumanism’ and what we today might call ecocentric, rather than anthropocentric visions – that is to say visions which have the whole of nature, rather than simply people, as their centre. These are desperately needed in our culture. They are desperately needed in literature. They are desperately needed in poetry. But where can they be found?

In the Western tradition, such voices have edged in to the mainstream of poetry over the last few centuries. Robert Graves wrote that the function of poetry that of a warning bell:

Once a warning to man that he must keep in harmony with the family of living creatures among which he was born … it is now a reminder that he has disregarded the warning, turned the house upside down by capricious experiments in science, philosophy and industry, and brought ruin upon himself and his family.

What do we have left to us, after this? In Britain, where our people and our poets were torn away from nature by industrialism before anyone else on Earth, the pickings are meagre. Our most famous historical ‘nature poet’ is still William Wordsworth. Wordsworth was the first poet to openly worship nature in the round; his early writing is unashamedly pantheist. He was the first poet to declare nature to be a force in her own right, who worked on the human mind. He was the first poet to go searching in the wilds for his own soul, and to find it in solitude.

But Wordsworth was also – and the Romantic movement he was part of was also – a reaction against a way of seeing. Romanticism was a counter-Enlightenment project. Wordsworth lived through a time when the same forces which today ravage the world were beginning their work in earnest. The evidence of the industrial revolution was all around him, and new ways of seeing were becoming alarmingly popular. Philosophers were claiming that nature was all mechanics, that science could tell us all we needed to know about it, that industry and progress and capitalism and empire were the truest expressions of human potential.

In response to this, Wordsworth’s rejoinder was both atavistic and spiritual. It called for a return to something deeper and older, but not simply for nostalgic or sentimental reasons. Wordsworth wanted, in his early years at least, to reconnect the human soul with the soul of the green world, which it had lost in a flurry of railways and abstract thinking. He writes:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn

Longing to be a pagan in 1804 was asking for trouble. Even Coleridge had a problem with Wordsworth’s early and open worship of nature, and many people have had a problem with it since. But I’ve always admired it, even in its naivete, because I share some of Wordsworth’s pantheism, and his animism, and probably his naivete too. I certainly share his sense that:

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

But Wordsworth was not exactly ecocentric. He did not share Jeffers’ understanding of the sheer lack of interest which the rest of nature had in humanity. Nature, for the young Wordsworth, sometimes seemed to exist for the purpose of healing the souls of poets. Nature itself had a soul; was a soul. Nature, sometimes, seemed anthropocentric.

Compare this vision to that of a later English nature poet, Ted Hughes. A century and a half later, Hughes, like Wordsworth, also found spiritual succour in the English landscape and its wildlife. But unlike Wordsworth, Hughes had a sense of the random cruelty of nature. Given the events of his personal life, perhaps he could hardly have had anything else. Nature might be beautiful, and maybe also sublime, but it was also a great whirling wheel of death and birth and death again, and you never knew when you would be crushed under it. Here’s Hughes in ‘Hawk Roosting’, seeing through the eyes of a predatory bird:

… I kill where I please because it is all mine.
There is no sophistry in my body:
My manners are tearing off heads —

The allotment of death.
For the one path of my flight is direct
Through the bones of the living.
No arguments assert my right:

The sun is behind me.
Nothing has changed since I began.
My eye has permitted no change.
I am going to keep things like this.

For Hughes, as for Jeffers – both poets were obsessed by the hawk as the symbol of the cold, brilliant cruelty of nature. Here’s Jeffers again, in his poem ‘The Bloody Sire’:

What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine
The fleet limbs of the antelope?
What but fear winged the birds, and hunger
Jewelled with such eyes the great goshawk’s head?
Violence has been the sire of all the world’s values.

If this seems cold, and harsh, it’s because it is. If you’re going to find a way of seeing nature as it really is, you are going to have to shed your human perspective, as much as that is ever possible. You are going to have to see nature not simply as sublime and beautiful, but also as cruel and passionless. In his book Literature and the Crime Against Nature, Keith Sagar offered up three possible ways of viewing the world beyond the human:

First, that it is cruel, ugly, obscene, amoral – that life lived in accord with it would be ‘nasty, brutish and short’; second that it has its beauties and charms, but that these are irrelevant or seductive – a temptation away from truth or ultimate values, which are to be sought elsewhere; or third that, without turning a blind eye to anything in nature, it is still possible to find it sacred, and a source of permanent values.

For writing to reflect the real world, outside the human bubble, it needs to come to terms with the need to strip away the human projection of values onto the non-human world. It needs to come to terms with the sheer strangeness of nature, and its refusal to be bounded by human values and demands.

For centuries we have been caught within the jaws of a poisonous Cartesian myth: nature is a dead thing, a collection of ‘resources’ to be analysed and exploited and numbered and sub-divided. Science, perhaps, is beginning to haltingly rescue us from this: the work of Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock, for example, not to mention the ideas of quantum science and the growing field of ecology, are suggesting, if not yet proving, that all life is interconnected, that much of nature is very much unknown to us, and that intelligence, consciousness, thoughts, feelings, language, song and many more characteristics which were previously considered to be the domain of humanity alone are anything but.

But if science is getting there, poetry got there long ago. Carl Jung said that whenever he went to explore an area of human consciousness using science he found that a poet had got there first. This ought to be true of our consciousness towards the natural world which we have quite deliberately, in the industrial world, shut out of our lives.

But who, right now, is doing this job? In Britain, I think it’s safe to say that there are no prominent poets doing so — which is not the same thing as saying that no poets do. Two years ago, partly in order to do something about this situation, I founded the Dark Mountain Project, a cultural movement for writers and artists which focuses on the importance of being honest about our current global predicament. One of our responses is to encourage and bring together writers who take a more ecocentric perspective. Every year we publish an anthology of what we call Uncivilised writing, and through this I’ve discovered an exciting range of poets who are able to weave these themes into their work.

But while there are certainly ‘nature poets’ on the radar of our current British poetry establishment – local girl Alice Oswald being the most obvious example – I can’t see any British equivalents of Jeffers, or even Hughes. For this, in the English language at least, we have to look to America. (I should probably say at this point that this little survey of mine is a survey of English language poets in the Western tradition, because this is the tradition I come from and I currently am too ignorant about others to make intelligent comment.)

It’s always been the case that poets writing in English in the new world have had a keener sense of the grand sweep of nature than those in England itself. This is at least partly because of the sheer size of the place. There are still great areas of wild land in the USA and Canada, and Australia and New Zealand, the like of which have not existed for millennia in Britain. And the Americans, in particular, have a powerful tradition of deep ecological thinking which is quite different from our smaller, more human-scale narrative about nature.

Ultimately I suspect that writing traditions can only be truly ecocentric if they rise from places where wild nature is still abundant – just as ecocentric cultures, such as those of rainforest tribes, spring from landscapes where nature is lived with rather than suppressed, tamed and conquered. The Europeans – and especially the British – live in a landscape long tamed. Nothing predates us, in this country. In an Indian or African village you can still be attacked by tigers or lions. In America there are bears. The Australian ecologist Val Plumwood wrote of how her life was changed radically when she was almost killed by a crocodile. She realised, then – in reality rather than simply intellectually – that she was part of a food chain, and not necessarily at the top of it.

America’s current poet laureate is the greatest living poet I know of: W. S. Merwin. Now in his eighties, a Buddhist and a pacifist, Merwin lives on a Hawaiian island, where he grows endangered palm trees and writes endangered poems. Merwin is the heir to Jeffers, but he exhibits more compassion. What he shares with Jeffers is that deep time sense of a world in which humans are a presence – and often a malevolent one – but not a purpose. We are apes who have let our science outrun our wisdom and now we are paying for it. Unfortunately, so is everything else on Earth. Probably my favourite Merwin poem brings this home with a quiet power. It’s called For a coming extinction:

Gray whale
Now that we are sending you to The End
That great god
Tell him
That we who follow you invented forgiveness
And forgive nothing

I write as though you could understand
And I could say it
One must always pretend something
Among the dying
When you have left the seas nodding on their stalks
Empty of you
Tell him that we were made
On another day

The bewilderment will diminish like an echo
Winding along your inner mountains
Unheard by us
And find its way out
Leaving behind it the future
And ours

When you will not see again
The whale calves trying the light
Consider what you will find in the black garden
And its court
The sea cows the Great Auks the gorillas
The irreplaceable hosts ranged countless
And fore-ordaining as stars
Our sacrifices
Join your work to theirs
Tell him
That it is we who are important

At this point, we should perhaps take a step back. If you’ve followed me this far without falling asleep, you might have recognised something that much of this writing has in common: its bleakness. It’s a bleakness that comes across, I’ll admit, in my collection as well: not through any intent, exactly, but simply through the subject matter, and my sense of powerlessness in the face of the Vanishing. And this is a fundamental problem with trying to write ‘eco-poetry’ – or deep ecological, or ecocentric poetry, whatever term we want to use.

The problem is simple: once we stand outside of a human perspective, or at least attempt to, we immediately become aware of two things. The first is that humans are not nearly as important, as central or as potent in the history of Earth as we think we are. In our bubble, inhabiting our myths, we believe in our centrality, whether we take religion or science as our guides. Out there, we’re just another species. If an osprey wrote a history of the world, I’m guessing it would assume the central importance of ospreys. That wouldn’t make ospreys the most important species on Earth, whatever the osprey god said.

The second problem is that taking a wider view of our species makes us look a lot less … nice than we tell ourselves we are. The list of human achievements is long – moon landings, the construction of cities, modern medicine, the internet … But you’ll notice that every one of these achievements benefits humans alone. The list of terrible things that can be attributed to humans, meanwhile, includes plenty of activities that offload misery onto the non-human world: mass extinction, climate change, pollution. From the outside, humanity looks bleaker, less kind, less humane – an ironic word given the circumstances – than we tell ourselves we are. Ask an osprey to write a history of homo sapiens sapiens, and you may end up with a poison pen biography.

Here, then, is the problem which an honest, ecocentric poetry throws up: there is only so much of this stuff that you can read – and, in my experience, write – before it gets to you. That, I think, is what happened to Robinson Jeffers, whose later life, as a virtual recluse in his tower, can act as a warning. Jeffers’ stark realism was deeply inspiring, but too much of it was hard to swallow, perhaps even for him.

If ‘the world is too much with us’, as Wordsworth put it, then maybe the end of the world can be too much with us as well. Too much of a focus on the beyond-human coldness of things, and of the relentless grinding down of beauty and wonder by our over-successful species, can lead to bitterness and misanthropy: no place for a poet to be, but the place where several of them have ended up.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. It is – it has to be – possible to write about nature from a perspective outside the narrowly human, but to hitch that to human needs and concerns.

I don’t know who the best-selling living poet is in Britain, but in the USA it’s Mary Oliver. Oliver’s poems are all about ‘nature’ in some form – usually an account of her personal intimacy with the world beyond people. There are very few humans in Mary Oliver’s poems. Like Wordsworth, she often sees nature as a healing force: but she also sees the smallness of humanity, and rejoices in it. This is from her poem ‘Wild Geese’:

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese,
high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Compare that to Jeffers or much of Hughes and you see a much greater willingness to allow humans to touch the inhumanity of the natural world. It is still red in tooth and claw, but we can be redeemed by an understanding of it, and an attempt to be part of it nonetheless. Is this a woman’s perspective – less keen to revel in pain and brutality than some men? I don’t know, but there is some sense in Mary Oliver’s work that an ecocentric perspective can be reconciled with a human one.

This, maybe, is the challenge for poets now. A twofold challenge, if you like: to write from an ecocentric perspective, but to do so while retaining that vital ability to see on a human-scale. To be, as Jeffers would have put it, inhuman, whilst still remaining human. I don’t suppose it is easy; in fact, I know it isn’t easy, because I’ve just spent a whole book trying to do it. But I think it is possible. And I think it is vital. Our civilisation is stuck in a dying story. Our poets are in there with the rest of us. We should perhaps use our words to prepare the escape route. Time may be short.

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