Can "Experimental" Poetry Save the Earth?
In his essay "Vermin: a Notebook", the Australian poet John Kinsella writes that without acts of resistance, "the environment has no chance."
This seems obvious enough.
The way things are going, the earth (or at the very least, life on it) is in danger of being irreparably damaged by humanity's heedless gobbling of resources. Resistance and change need to happen. Everyone from Barack Obama to T. Boone Pickens agrees on that.
What no one quite agrees on is what form these acts of resistance should take. Should we chain ourselves to trees and squeal at passersby, or should we just use Flexcar once a week? Should we turn the living room lights off during the day or develop a bedroom bucket sewage system? Firebomb the coal plant or compost the coffee grounds? Let the free market take care of the polar bears or demand cap and trade?
For Kinsella, there's one act of resistance that encompasses the full range of these possibilities, yet no one has talked much about it: Poetry.
"Poems," Kinsella writes, "can stop bulldozers."
A vegan pacifist currently living so off the grid no one is quite sure where he is, Kinsella believes that poetry is one of the most effective tools for political and ethical change. Not because it is simply a quick way to convey information through words (I think we can all agree that saying "Destroying the environment is wrong!" does not make for much of a poem nor does it do much to help the environment), but for precisely the reason most people don't spend much time with poetry. Because it's difficult. Because it resists easy interpretation. Poetry stops bulldozers because, Kinsella says, "the intricacies of language challenge, distract, and entangle the bulldozer."
No poem really knows a truth, but it has knowledge and offers ways of approaching truth. The use of language is precise, even when it gives a semblance of the unconscious, even when it is automatic writing. In the Surrealist sense, the conducting of automatic writing exercises was experimental textually and scientifically, and was as much about the act of recording the data of process as it was about the subject connecting with the unconscious. It was, at least, quasi-scientific.
And the pseudo- and quasi- interest me. The games of dismantling and rearranging, of exquisite corpse and chance, are all part of the science of a poem for me: they are just different systems of knowledge. That's why an activist poetics can include the radically linguistically innovative, as well as the straight declaration ("logging the Tuart Forest is wrong"). Parataxis, conventional end-stopped lines and enjambment, narrative description, metaphor and metonymies, are all part of a process towards confronting hierarchies and imposed structures. We work from inside to open a view of the outside, but not one that destroys in the process.
Working from the inside to produce change on the outside. It's a pretty radical idea, one that takes the concept of the personal being political to a different level. Not only what happens at home but also what happens in the mind--it's all part of the world. While poets like Wendell Berry, Lisa Jarnot, and Gary Snyder have used poetry as a part of their environmental activism, few have put it at so central a position.
Is he on to something besides a fool's errand?
Travis Nichols is the author of two books of poetry: Iowa (2010, Letter Machine Editions) and See Me Improving (2010); and he is the author of two novels: Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder (2012) and The More You Ignore Me (2013). He has contributed to The Believer, Paste, The...