Sustainable Poetry 

Everything is connected to everything else.

A bald statement to begin with. Much contemporary poetry is predicated on a set of unsustainable anthropocentric views of the nature of the world: that the world exists to serve as a stage set for the enactment of human dramas; that it reflects the moods of, or evoked by, the poet; that it exists only when observed; that it exists only when written.

These attitudes are, in English-language verse, at least as old as Spenser, but have enjoyed a massive resurgence thanks to postmodernist views of language as game. Interestingly both ‘mainstream’ and ‘avant garde’ poetries tend to find common ground in this drive to subjugate the world as written to human needs and ends. The pathetic fallacy meets literary theory and nobody wins.

Other current cultural trends, ranging from hippy-dippy animism to the pursuit of the technological fix for everything, reinforce this view of the world as being understandable only in purely human terms. We make nature in our own image, one way or another.

The physical sciences take a different view: that the world is essentially physical, and that languages, including mathematics, are tools we can use to create increasingly accurate maps of it. Unfortunately, in populist attempts to explain their theories and concepts, even scientists can slip into animistic and/or idealistic confusion when they present objects and forces as if they were possessed of wishes, desires, needs and other human motivations, or speak of them as if they were created, rather than described, by mathematics or verbal language.

One form of this mistaken ‘scientific’ idealism, regularly cited by modern supporters of the esse est percipi fallacy, derives from the field of quantum physics. Idealists assume that the principle of indeterminacy supports the idea that the world is produced by the process of observation, and this is frequently compared to strands of oriental philosophy that hold to similar ideas. However, it would appear that quantum physicists themselves believe that the particles they study are real things with real existence. They just do not fully understand the ways in which these particles behave, and it may well be that new sets of scientific laws that describe nano-objects may yet evolve, laws quite different from those that describe the macro-level world. In any case, even if observation does turn out to influence behaviour on the nano-scale, is anyone seriously arguing that telescopes influence the behaviour of the stars?

As poetry becomes increasingly professionalised, the pressure is on the qualified poet (MA in Creative Writing, PhD in Colonial Studies) to be able to draw on, and contribute to, a body of theory that lends academic respectability to their work. It is understandable that these professionals of language will be drawn towards those theories that foreground the importance of their chosen medium. By so doing, they contribute in some small way to the elevation of the human over the rest of the world. In turn, this serves to aggravate, again in small ways, the ongoing environmental crisis that threatens to hasten the extinction of the species they elevate. In small ways, but even small actions have results. The person who writes poems also drinks increasingly impure water from the tap and selects over-packaged food from the supermarket shelf. Everything is connected to everything else: the first law of ecology.

Nothing ever goes away

Esse non est percipi. We live on a planet that is a small ball turning round a reasonably ordinary star, itself located in the outer reaches of a galaxy that is, in turn, just one of billions or possibly hundreds of billions. We share this world with about 1,000,000 named species, of which about 800,000 are animals. Of the animals, around 600,000 species are insects, and among these there are approximately 350,000 species of beetle. In the face of these numbers, a little humility is in order. While it may be consoling to believe that humans are the crown of creation and generate reality by means of consciousness and perception, the evidence tends not to support this position.

Ironically, the space in which postmodernist idealism has developed is created by the application to wealth-production of those very scientific advances that render idealism untenable in the first place. To quote Joseph Schwartz, from his book The Creative Moment (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1992): ‘One of the things that the physics of the nineteenth century makes inescapable is that the physical universe has structures that exist whether we are here to see them or not. We are too far down the road of industrial development to return to the dinner party idealism of Bishop Berkeley and his descendants and their fabulous theories of the world as mind and mind alone. Indeed this view has not been treated with the ridicule it deserves.’

Sustainable poetry finds its ground in the imperfect charting of these structures. It also illuminates the deep ecology view that we need to adopt an ecocentric mode of living in the world if we are to survive. If the role of philosophy is to inspire action, the role of poetry is to be in the world. Like the laws of physics, like mathematics, this poetry is descriptive, not proscriptive. It also accepts the sceptical view that full knowledge of the world cannot be attained through the medium of the senses. However, it sees this as a failure of the senses, not as an argument for the idealist position, and works towards the clearest possible approximation. Rather than saying that nothing is unless it is held in the mind of a human observer, it asserts that many things are that have never been perceived, and that for most things that are perceived, the perception is imperfect. This is a necessary part of the humility called for earlier. We are part of the weave of things, and our view inevitably depends on where we sit in that weave. That’s all. Everything goes somewhere.

There is no such thing as a free lunch

Cothu, the business council for the arts in Ireland, used to run courses in management, marketing and communications. It then changed its name to Business2Arts, and sent round a letter stating that its new aim was to convince business that an investment in the arts was sound, particularly because the arts could help improve corporate communications.

Small press poetry publishers applying to the Arts Council of Ireland are sent a form in which they are required to give details of their mission statement and actual or potential job creation status. This reflects the council’s role as a government-financed development agency, whose primary function is to fund and oversee the professionalisation of arts administration. Under this regime, the arts become part of the states economic development strategy. Music and literature are used in tourist promotion; arts in the community schemes help reduce the long-term unemployed numbers. The saleable is valued above all else.

However, there is no such thing as sustainable growth. We live on a finite planet, with finite resources available, and at some point growth will tip us over the edge. The arts are not immune to this fact.

Sustainable poetry is not a career move. As already noted, it is difficult for those poets who live and work within the confines of the literary and/or teaching professions, who have to some extent been colonised by the machine, to do work that questions the status quo. Consequently, it is likely that any attempt at a sustainable poetry will come from apparently marginal writers.

Another, perhaps more self-evident, aspect of sustainability has to do with the means of production and dissemination of the work. Sustainable poetry does not compete with more mainstream publishing houses for a slice of some illusory ‘market’. Why publish 500 copies if you know you’ll only sell 50? Why not barter? Keep the environmental impact to a minimum. Beware the technological ‘fix’ of e-publishing.

Even small actions have results. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Nature knows best

So what might a sustainable poetry look like? I would like to present here a brief glimpse of some writing that represents a beginning.

The phenomenological poetry that Geoffrey Squires has been producing in recent years illustrates one way of writing about how we perceive the world. Here’s a short extract from his Untitled II as printed in Shearsman 50:

gs1     Squires’ work manages to explore the relationship between mind and world without overvaluing the one or undervaluing the other. It is a poetry of experience and consequence, the experience of being in the world in which ‘there is not one moment but that something happens’ and the consequence of mind’s attempts at processing that experience in light of the perception that ‘recognition is not knowledge’. The experience is of a world that:

gs2The late Richard Caddel’s Fantasia in the English Choral Tradition, recently reprinted in Magpie Words (West House Books, 2002) opens with the following lines:


in which the movement of verse and mind reflect exactly that being in the world to which sustainable poetry must aspire. In fact, the best of Caddel’s work reaches this place as a matter of course, and then sings; which is not to say that it discounts the human. Such primal experiences as love and death and the other ‘great themes’ are here, but always set in the context of ‘the world in which / (for which)’ we all live. This adds depth to the handling of the personal, resulting in poems that are both deeply moving and deeply grounded in the actual world.


Caddel’s work is full of people, but they do not dominate the world, they inhabit it: placed in the weave of things. Shorn of the pseudo-religiosity of a Snyder or a Hughes, this is ecocentric poetry in action.

Maurice Scully’s deep understanding of Irish poetry informs his own practice as a writer. Unlike the English pastoral tradition, which, as I have argued elsewhere, is essentially a poetry of empire, of the land as owned object, this tradition is one of the land as living world. From the 8th century haiku-like lyrics of intense perception to the onomastics of the Metrical Dindshenchus, medieval Irish nature poetry concerned itself with the stubborn actuality of things and of the odd relationship between those things and the words used to name them. These lines from Scully’s 5 Freedoms of Movement (Etruscan Books, 2002, originally Galloping Dog 1987) illustrate the point I am trying to make:

ms1When Scully writes like this, the most fruitful comparison available is with the earliest Irish lyrics. The sheer concreteness of the writing mirrors the desire to present what is with minimal interference from the vanity of the writing ego. The world is not presented as a stage set for the acting out of some human drama but as a complex system of which the human domain is just one part. Or, to quote again


Wary of theory, this is a poetry of learning to live with and in the world, not of explaining and improving on it.


What these three very different poets have in common is a respect for the world in which they live and a balanced view of the role of perception, and of poetry, as mapper rather than maker. It is this that marks out their poetry as sustainable, in the sense I have been using the term. Small actions can lead to big results. If poets fail to look to the possible consequences of the way they present the world, they run the risk in being complicit in ecological meltdown. If we write as if the non-human exists to serve as a rich source of metaphor, we mirror the attitudes of those who exploit more tangible and financially rewarding resources. If we see poetry as a career opportunity, or as part of ‘the market’, we enter into the world of unsustainable growth. If we insist that our limited understanding forms a basis for improving on billions of years of evolution, we are likely to destroy the infinitely complex systems that sustain life. Nature knows best.

If, on the other hand, poetic practice (given that poetic theory is pretty well irrelevant to the creation of good writing) comes to terms with the laws of ecology that serve as section headers in this essay, there is some small hope that our tiny input may help move the intellectual climate toward a position of respect for the world on which our survival depends. Everything is connected to everything else. Nothing ever goes away. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Nature knows best.

(This essay first appeared on Tim Allen’s late, lamented Terrible Works website some years back.)