Before Poetry Can Save the Planet, It Needs to Shift Our Souls

By Marcia LeBeau

Every Tuesday morning, I throw a portable white board and some books into my car and drive up the hill to our local nature reserve. There within the 2,000 acres, I squint through the bare tree branches to spot little dots of pink, green, blue, and yellow jumping and climbing—the kindergarteners. When they see me, they start yelling, “Poetry time!” Most are excited; one makes it a point to tell me that he still hates poetry. He’s my favorite.

When I was first asked to teach at the outdoor school, which was completely out of my comfort zone in terms of age and venue, I gathered as many ecological poems as possible. Haiku anthologies, Naomi Shihab Nye’s book Cast Off, and Christina Rossetti’s and WCW’s poems, among others. It only made sense that since our classroom was the forest, I would show my students how poets spin nature into words and have them try to do the same. What I’ve learned, though, is even if I stray from the environment, nature permeates their thoughts and words.

Like the day after they came back from Spring Break. I had them write about a fictitious place they wanted to travel. They came up with Fairyland. “The place smelled like roses. / The air tasted like cherries.” And although they imagined “pillow unicorns,” “lots of leaves lived there,” too. They also begged to write spring haiku after deciding that “The world shouts, I’m / So excited that it’s Spring’s / Googolplex birthday!”

The forest is in their tiny bones, rushing through their blood. They observe and honor the environment because the environment is their classroom and their classroom, an extension of themselves.

But what about those of us who haven’t had the privilege of attending an outdoor school? Or who didn’t grow up on a farm or close to nature? Is my husband doomed to be disconnected because he grew up in a high-rise in Coney Island? Can a handout, 10 Things You Can Do to Help Save the Earth, like the one my son received recently (just in time for Earth Day) help him claim responsibility for our planet’s ecological crisis? I doubt a list citing “Limit Car Time” with a suggestion to combine trips to the grocery store with
school pick-up will have any effect on a 10-year-old mind.

This is where art comes into play, by connecting the personal with an urgency for sustainability that will motivate all humans—children and adults alike. What role does ecopoetry have in not only waking us up to the destruction of our Earth, but also in shifting our own individual ways of being? I believe there are certain types of poems that can penetrate our way of thinking and living.

There are the poets who go to apocalyptic extremes to wake us up. Take Matthew Olzmann’s poem, “Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years from Now,” from his new book Constellation Route. The epistolary begins with a sheepish nod to our guilt: “It must seem like we sought to leave you nothing / but benzene, mercury, the stomachs / of sea gulls rippled with jet fuel and plastic” and goes on chattily and excitedly to describe all the natural beauty—including the bees, forests, and lakes we had. All of that was enough to help us “contemplate the great mysteries and finally ask, / ‘Hey guys, what’s transcendence?’” This poem is an admission of our foolishness and lack of awareness for our complicity in the earth’s demise that Olzmann sums up with “then all the bees were dead.” Will labeling the present “us” as idiots spur us into action? Will it make us sad enough? Or is Olzmann mourning our ability to contemplate transcendence, a loss we’ve always grappled with regardless of planetary destruction because we will be gone, naturally or unnaturally, someday, and maybe that’s something we should turn our attention to again?

I believe I’m in denial along with the idiots, too caught up with my own life that I can’t seem to believe the earth’s demise is imminent. What poet hits this note of imminence with the most force? And what if poetry could get people to change their behavior?

I defer to a younger generation with more at stake. According to a 19-year-old, Alex Loorz, the founder of Kids vs. Climate Change—

Creating a safe and sustainable future takes more than investing in solar power and starting renewable energy companies. The shift requires a fundamental change in the way that we value each other and the earth—and it’s not a technological or political problem, it’s a problem that lies deep in the human spirit, and it requires a shift in a way that we think about every thing that we do.

Problems “that [lie] deep in the human spirit” are the grist for poets. The politicians
have failed us (once again), yet in America and the U.K., they have chosen Poet Laureates who made the earth their highest priority. Many other countries, like China
and Japan, with the ancient Book of Songs and haiku respectively, would not have to
announce this, since honoring the earth in verse is ingrained in their cultures.

When Simon Armitage became Poet Laureate of the U.K. in 2019, he made climate change a priority. “We are facing the most catastrophic threat to the future of our planet that we have ever encountered,” he wrote as he launched The Laurel Prize for poetry about climate change.

In her book, Mama Amazonica (2017), the first winner of the prize, Pascal Petit, personifies the Amazonian Rainforest as a mother in a psychiatric ward to make the reader feel both emotional and natural destruction. The poem, “Rainforest in the Sleep Room,” begins, “The highway goes through / the Amazon’s brain / like an ice pick / through an eye socket. // First we clear her synapses. / Then she forgets her animals.” How sly Petit is to make our anthropocentric selves the environment itself. Now, maybe, we are able to feel the pain of habitat loss acutely, as if it were a loss of our own memories.

In 2017, when the Library of Congress appointed Joy Harjo as the first Native American to become U.S. Poet Laureate, they chose someone who has an intimate connection to the land. As Harjo says, “. . . [T]here is a deep, ancestral knowledge within indigenous cultures relating to managing and caring for lands . . .” Poetry, in Joy Harjo’s eyes, is paramount to the survival of humanity. “A culture without art,” Harjo says, “is a dying culture.” Her poem, “For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet,” is a call to action. Combining the personal with the political, the poem begs us to “Put down that bag of potato chips, that white bread, that bottle of pop. / Turn off that cellphone, computer, and remote control. / Open the door, then close it behind you. / Take a breath offered by friendly winds. They travel the earth gathering essences of plants to clean. / Give it back with gratitude.” She calls upon us to let go of our greed and our unnecessary comforts. Give back.

Harjo’s “Eagle Poem,” might be an even more powerful example of the necessity for our stewardship to the earth. This poem takes me back to what the children, learning in the forest, know inherently. We have a responsibility to regain
communion with nature so that both nature and humanity can continue:

To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear;
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.

Open yourself to the earth and you open to spirit. You learn from the animals,
“Like eagle that Sunday morning / Over Salt River. Circled blue sky / In wind,
swept our hearts clean / With sacred wings.” We are forever changed by observation, “We see you, see ourselves and know / That we must take the utmost
care / And kindness in all things.” This poem is earnest, and beautiful, and a
useful update of Wordsworth’s hope that, through contemplation of nature
and of individual lives together, “We see into the life of things.” In doing so,
it’s possible we will see, gently, into the death of things, too, with enough time
to save the forests and our souls.

At a reading, sponsored by the Hudson Valley Writers Center (HVWC), in one of the darkest weeks of the pandemic, program director, Jennifer Franklin, told the Zoom audience that the poet Nickole Brown had declared that all any poet should be writing right now is ecopoetry. One of the featured poets
disagreed. She posited that you can’t tell someone what to write about. You write about what you need to write so that you can devote energy to the environment in your own way. Brown would stand firm in her beliefs, though. She volunteers at five animal sanctuaries to connect more with animals and communicate their feelings through her poetry. Her chapbooks, To Those Who Were Our First Gods (2018) and The Donkey Elegies (2020) are testaments to that mission. It is through her evocation of the animals and her no-nonsense direct address, that we feel urgency. And however we land on the above question about the ethical necessity of writing ecopoetry to the exclusion of all
else, we can understand that Brown’s project is to shock us out of apathy as well as to honor our environmental efforts, futile though they may seem. In “Against Despair: The Kid Goat” she writes about trying to nurse a goat back to health, and failing. But the trying is the important thing:

. . . But here is the point. Do not ever
let yourself think it didn’t matter:

It mattered then
as it matters now, because until

this morning rose dull on the horizon

with this useless, good-for-nothing
goat now motionless on your floor,

regardless, in spite of, no matter,
you fed a beast worthless, a real

lost cause not unlike

this whole stubborn,
beautiful, fucked-up planet

about to seize and drown
in its own melt.

Brown’s poem, “A Prayer to Talk to the Animals,” meanwhile, is an incantation that berates and asks for forgiveness. It’s similar to Olzmann’s epistolary poem in intent, although the reverent tone is apologetic, humble. It is a plea to help us remember who we are; our place in the world is not above, but with all creatures:

. . . Oh, forgive me, Lord,
how human I’ve become, busy clicking
what I like, busy pushing
my cuticles back and back to expose
all ten pale, useless moons. Would you let me
tell your creatures how sorry
I am, let them know exactly
what we’ve done? Am I not an animal
too? If so, Lord, make me one again.
Give me back my dirty claws and blood-warm
horns, braid back those longfrayed endings of every nerve tingling
with all I thought I had to do today . . .

When we read poems like Brown’s, we are begging to be shown and convinced of our own interconnectedness with the planet in order to save it. But before we can take on the planet, we become aware that we haven’t even begun to save ourselves. In pinning our hopes on some large government action, we are shunning the very idea that we are just animals trying to survive. If the poems above do anything, they remind us to connect individually and reject the idea that personal choices don’t matter. Our way of living and our definition of survival is unbalanced, they argue, but we can try to re-balance in small ways—like nursing a goat, like putting down the remote, like being grateful, like writing a new Fairyland. Ultimately, our demise—both planetary and artistic—will come if we don’t listen to what these idiosyncratic voices tell us. More than ever, it’s time to look at the bare tree branches. Because it’s still “Poetry time.”


Marcia LeBeau’s poems have been published in Rattle, Painted Bride Quarterly,
Moon City Review, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in poetry from VCFA and
is the founder of The Write Space in the Valley Arts District of Orange, New
Jersey—a co-working and literary hub for creative writers.

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