The Poems of Climate Change


This week’s climate change summit in Paris will no doubt produce an array of complex scientific and political documents, but the way in which we think about our climate is also mediated by more accessible texts, including fiction and poetry. Matthew Griffiths reflects on how the images and impressions found in poetry may urge us to think about our climate in a more sensitive way.

As politicians in Paris continue to work towards a global deal on carbon emissions this week at COP21 – the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – it is evident that our relationship with the climate is one that is negotiated through texts.

If this seems a fanciful assertion, it’s worth remembering that we have strived to understand climate change through language for as long as we have seen it as a threat – from the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, now five in number, to the scores of non-fiction books about it by writers such as James Lovelock, Bill McKibben, Elizabeth Kolbert and Naomi Klein. The perception of climate itself is an artefact of human records – texts – collating weather over timespans of several decades. We were not able to tell that the climate was changing without a sense of what climate was in the first place.

This is not to deny the reality of the phenomenon, or more properly the network of phenomena, but to point out that the ways we convey the complexity of climate change will reveal something of the preconceptions we bring to it. Mike Hulme in Why We Disagree About Climate Change usefully suggests several myths that inform our understanding of the phenomena, such as lamenting Eden or presaging apocalypse. In literary terms, we have also seen in recent years the emergence of ‘cli-fi’, a term coined by Dan Bloom to describe novels that engage with the causes or consequences of a changed climate, ranging from thrillers through satire to science fiction.

cli fi

Slower to emerge has been the poetry that engages with climate change, but as with narrative the tropes that poetry has exploited are familiar. Poems have tended to lament or agitate, invoking images such as ice, flooding, polar bears, rainforests, SUVs and aeroplanes. The 2008 British Council anthology Feeling the Pressure juxtaposes summaries of the science with commissioned poems, which often rehearse such images and narratives, although the more ambitious pieces use form and experimental poetics to suggest breakdowns in natural order. More recently, poems commissioned by the Guardian offer a nuanced and diverse mixture of responses, although the heavy weather of environmentalist tropes is still apparent.

Both sets of poems are, of necessity, responses to climate change: they follow concepts already established in our culture, largely through news media. If we are to engage still more meaningfully with the phenomena, we could unpick why we understand climate in the way we do; in which case, we can look further back than the contemporary understanding of climate to a poet who recognised just how complex the term already was.

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Wallace Stevens, ‘The Poems of Our Climate’

Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Poems of Our Climate’ (1942) expresses our desire to reduce climate to something tangible, while recognising the failure of this process to capture the world in imagery. The poem meditates on a bowl of carnations in a room on a snowy, late winter day, and with its juxtaposition of domestic and meteorological it highlights the efforts we have to take to keep the two spheres separate. Stevens’s characteristic repetitions enact the circularity of thought that struggles with the insufficiency of language and the subsequent need to keep reaching beyond language to explore the material phenomena which it comprises. The speaker’s troubled self-acknowledgement of his role in this process also makes clear that even before anthropogenic climate change, climate itself is orientated around the human.

The impulse to understand our climate has assumed greater urgency since Stevens’s time because figuring possible future climates and their suitability – or otherwise – for the existence of life on earth has become a political imperative as much an aesthetic and philosophical paradox. Nevertheless, ‘The Poems of our Climate’ suggests that, whatever is concluded at Paris, it will not be a conclusion, and the politicians will be returning to their texts time and time again.

Matthew Griffiths’ recently submitted thesis was on the Modernist Poetics of Climate Change. His book on climate change and poetry will be published in December 2016.[Edit 27th July 2017: Matthew Griffiths’ book The New Poetics of Climate Change is out now, published by Bloomsbury.]

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