OPINION: CAN POETRY CURE THE CLIMATE CRISIS?
A friend recently told me he felt paralyzed by anxiety. “I can’t seem to think or move inside my dread,” he said. “Why?” I asked. I figured it was his newborn giving him the new father jitters. “Climate change,” he replied. After a beat, I said something sarcastic. We both laughed. But we left the conversation worse than when we’d began.
Later that night, I couldn’t sleep. I grabbed a book of poems I’d brought along for the trip and flipped to the first page. It was an excerpt from one of my favorite poems, Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself:
“A child said What is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?”
And the most eerie yet must striking line:
“And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.”
(Whitman, 2013, p. 3)
I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d remembered these lines when my friend told me about his fear; how our conversation might’ve been different?
“Climate anxiety” isn’t listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the official catalog of mental health disorders. But it was defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2017 as a “chronic fear of environmental doom” (“Terrified of Climate Change?”2019). It’s now considered an acceptable term for a burgeoning psycho-social phenomenon.
Clinical psychologist, Dr. Patrick Kennedy-Williams became overwhelmed when a wave of his colleagues from the science department at Oxford started coming to him for appointments. “These were people who were essentially facing a barrage of negative information and downward trends in their work,” he said. The scientists were feeling anxious, ineffective, even meaningless. “The consequences of this can be pretty dire – anxiety, burnout and a sort of professional paralysis” (M. Taylor and J. Murry, 2020).
In response the doctor started a group called Climate Psychologists which describes part of their mission this way: “we understand the cure to climate anxiety is also the cure to climate change…our mission is to move people from a place of inaction, grief, anger, trauma, and dissonance to a place of motivation, power, and action.” (www.climatepsychologists.com) But if traditional therapy can be used to address climate anxiety then it’s no far leap to suggest poetry can too.
Bibliotherapy, or the reading and analyzing of stories as a form of therapy, has been around since the early 20th century and has been shown to effectively treat depression long term. (“Bibliotherapy” 1). In fact, according to the National Association of Poetry Therapy, it goes back much further. Around the first century A.D., the Roman Physician Soranus prescribed verses of comedy or tragedy to his patients depending on their mood. In the nineteenth century, Benjamin Rush, a signee of the Declaration of Independence, and nicknamed “the Father of American Psychiatry,” introduced music, literature, and poetry-writing as treatments for “diseases of the mind,” in his Philadelphia mental hospital.
Perhaps, the quote by poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, which is highlighted on the NAPT website, best articulates the point: “Language placed my life experiences in a new context, freeing me for the moment to become with air as air, with clouds as clouds, from which new associations arose to engage me in present life in a purposeful way.” (www.poetrytherapy.org)
If poetry gives context to the intangible, confusing, and abstract, and can allow one to “engage in present life in a purposeful way,” then it seems like the perfect medium for addressing climate anxiety.
“The Eco-Poetry Anthology” is, as the title suggests, a collection of poems that address ecology, or Nature, in some way. It is an assembly of poems ranging from the American romantic transcendentalist movement, to more contemporary, overtly political poems about the climate crisis. I was assigned “The EcoPoetry Anthology” for a class in college, which I didn’t take too seriously. Years later, I find myself digging through it frequently.
In his introduction to “The Eco-Poetry Anthology” poet Robert Hass writes:
“as we have been coediting the Eco-Poetry Anthology, we’ve become even more convinced that the environmental crisis is made possible by a profound failure of the imagination. What we humans disregard, what we fail to know and grasp, is easy to destroy: a mountaintop, a coral reef, a forest, a human community. Yet poetry returns us in countless ways to the world of our senses. It can act, in Franz Kafka’s phrase, as ‘an ice-axe to break the frozen sea inside us,’ awakening our dulled perceptions and feelings. This is the power of all poetry.” (A. Fisher-Wirth, L. Street, 2014)
Below I’ve listed just a few poems from the anthology and their starting lines that exemplify of the book’s intention.
excerpt from Cow Worship by Gerald Stern
I love the cows best when they are a few feet away
from my dining-room window and my pine floor,
when they reach in to kiss me with their wet
mouths and white noses.
(Stern, G. p. 503)
excerpt from Witchgrass by Louise Gluck
comes into the world unwelcome
calling disorder, disorder—
If you hate me so much
don’t bother to give me
a name: do you need
one more slur
in your language, another
way to blame
one tribe for everything
(Glück, L. p. 279)
excerpt from November Cotton Flower by Jean Toomer
Boll-weevil’s coming, and the winter’s cold
Made cotton-stalks look rusty, season’s old,
And cotton, scarce as any southern snow,
(Toomer, J. p. 59)
excerpt from For a Coming Extinction by W. S. Merwin
Now that we are sending you to The End
That great god
That we who follow you invented forgiveness
And forgive nothing
(Merwin, W. S. p. 401)
excerpt from Blackberries by Yusef Komunyakaa
They left my hand like a printer’s
Or theif’s before a police blotter
& pulled me into early morning’s
Terrestrial sweetness, so thick
The damp ground was consecrated
Where they fell among a garland of thorns.
Although I could smell old lime-colored
History, at ten I’d still hold out my hands
& berries fell into them. Eating from one
& filling a half-gallon with the other,
I ate the mythology & dreamt
Of pies & cobbler, almost
Needful as forgiveness…
(Komunyakaa, Y. p. 365)
Poetry can help solve the climate crisis because it pushes back against cynicism. Poetry contextualizes fear and anger and sadness, and, like a torch cutting through fog, it can help find something deeper. Call it truth, or meaning, or hope, or a way to move forward. I don’t think you have to go gung-ho, quit your job, read poems, and worship mycelium for the rest of your life (though I’m not against it). But the simple act of reading poetry can help understand, reflect on, and respect all the complex feelings the climate crisis can conjure. And if poetry can shift the paradigms of impending doom toward something deeper, if it can “break the frozen sea” within, and move someone from inaction to action, couldn’t that make all the difference?
Whitman, W. (2013). Song of Myself. Ann Fisher-Wirth, Laura-Gray Street (Ed.), The Ecopoetry Anthology (pp. 3). San Antonio: Trinity University Press.
Nugent, C. (2019, November). Terrified of Climate Change? You Might Have Eco-Anxiety. Retrieve from https://time.com/5735388/climate-change-eco-anxiety
“Climate Psychologists.” Climate Psychologists, www.climatepsychologists.com/.
“Bibliotherapy.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 7 Jan. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bibliotherapy.
“History of NAPT.” National Association for Poetry Therapy, poetrytherapy.org/index.php/about-napt/history-of-napt/.
Stern, G. (2013). Song of Myself. Ann Fisher-Wirth, Laura-Gray Street (Ed.), The Ecopoetry Anthology (pp. 503). San Antonio: Trinity University Press.
Glück, L. (2013). Song of Myself. Ann Fisher-Wirth, Laura-Gray Street (Ed.), The Ecopoetry Anthology (pp. 279). San Antonio: Trinity University Press.
Toomer, J. (2013). Song of Myself. Ann Fisher-Wirth, Laura-Gray Street (Ed.), The Ecopoetry Anthology (pp. 59). San Antonio: Trinity University Press.
Merwin, W. S. (2013). Song of Myself. Ann Fisher-Wirth, Laura-Gray Street (Ed.), The Ecopoetry Anthology (pp. 401). San Antonio: Trinity University Press.
Komunyakaa, Y. (2013). Song of Myself. Ann Fisher-Wirth, Laura-Gray Street (Ed.), The Ecopoetry Anthology (pp. 365). San Antonio: Trinity University Press.