Thursday, May 31, 2018

Can Poetry Save the Earth?

Our Changing World: Public Lecture Series
(Albany Campus, Massey University, 2018)

What the ...? Of course not, I hear you say. And, naturally, I have a good deal of sympathy with this view. I took the title from Paul Celan-biographer John Felstiner's intriguingly named book Can Poetry Save the Earth?: A Field Guide to Nature Poems. My unfortunate colleagues Jo Emeney and Bryan Walpert have been forced to live with it.

John Felstiner: Can Poetry Save the Earth?: A Field Guide to Nature Poems (2009)

This particular public lecture is by all three of us, you see, but unfortunately I was the one who sent in the rubric for it, some time in the balmy summer days of last year, when all such tiresome things seemed an awful long way off. Now, alas, it's hard upon us:

Not only that, but this:

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Here's yet another announcement from the Massey website:

Book and flowers Can poetry save the Earth? 

Thursday 31 May 2018  | Associate Professor Bryan Walpert, Dr Jack Ross, Dr Jo Emeney
Can Poetry Save the Earth? A Field Guide to Nature Poems is the title of poet and critic John Felstiner's 2009 exploration of how the human and natural worlds connect. Can writing and reading poetry change both? It’s a question that resonates with one of the most pressing issues of our time – the impact of climate change. Poets and editors Associate Professor Bryan Walpert, Dr Jack Ross and Dr Jo Emeney, from Massey’s creative writing programme, discuss how imagination and thinking about nature can be opened up through poetry and will read from their own work.

And here's the text of an article our wonderful communications director Jennifer Little wrote about the whole extravaganza:

Can poetry save the Earth?

Can reading, writing and studying poetry have any relevance to how we think about and respond to increasingly grim environmental issues? A trio of award-winning poets, editors and creative writing lecturers from the School of English and Media Studies will share their ideas on this intriguing notion in a public lecture.

In Can poetry save the Earth? (Thursday 31 May at 6:30pm), Associate Professor Bryan Walpert, Dr Jack Ross and Dr Jo Emeney will explore the idea that writing and reading poetry can connect us to the natural world in a way that resonates with one of the most pressing issues of our time – the impact of climate change.

They will discuss how imagination and thinking about nature can be opened up through poetry, and will read their own and others’ work – from home grown greats such as Hone Tuwhare and Brian Turner to American poet Robert Frost and Romantic English poet John Clare. It is the fourth of ten free public lectures in the 2018 Our Changing World series, featuring speakers from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

They’ve borrowed their lecture title from Can Poetry Save the Earth? A Field Guide to Nature Poems - poet and critic John Felstiner's 2009 exploration of how the human and natural worlds connect.

While Felstiner may have intended just to give his book a catchy title, “Poetry and poets can use their sway to agitate for change. Why else would so many of us be put in prison?” says Dr Emeney.

“I can think of at least one example where the use of a chemical pesticide (DDT) was banned across the United States as a direct result of a book on the subject written by a poet.”

“I think Felstiner chose the title in a teasing way, since it's so obvious that poetry can't save the Earth. It gets more interesting when you start to question ‘why not’, though,” says Dr Ross. “Why couldn't it at least help? Doesn't poetry - by its nature - suggest certain attitudes which might be of value in keeping us alive?”

“I don’t think a particular poem is likely to save the Earth,” Dr Walpert says, “but I think that poetry as a whole can have an important effect on the way we think about the problems around us.”

Eco-poetry voices 21st century concerns

While there are and always have been ‘nature poets’, there’s now a complete school of thought, with learned journals, anthologies, and growing bodies of work called ‘eco-poetry,’ says Dr Ross.

He and Bryan have co-supervised a PhD thesis in this relatively new, cross-disciplinary field. “I don't see how one can be a poet and not be aware of your environment, regardless of what that awareness actually means or constitutes,” he says.

“Poetry is about respect, about making sure that in future we listen more carefully to the voices who've been warning about this for so long: before Rachel Carson [ecological prose poet and author of the ground-breaking 1962 environmental science book Silent Spring], even, and all the way back to John Clare [19th century English poet) and [Romantic English poet and painter] William Blake (those 'dark satanic mills’).

“Perhaps in the current context,” says Dr Walpert, “at a time when we are so overwhelmed with digital waves of language and such a public experience of it, much of it without nuance – private experiences of language that take more than a few seconds to read, that bear re-reading, and that embrace complexity have a particular value.”


Dr Jo Emeney has written two poetry collections: Apple & Tree (Cape Catley 2011), and Family History (Mākaro Press 2017), as well as a recent nonfiction book, The Rise of Autobiographical Medical Poetry and the Medical Humanities(ibidem Press 2018).

Dr Jack Ross is managing editor of Poetry New Zealand, New Zealand’s oldest poetry journal (now published by Massey University Press), as well as author of several poetry collections, including A Clearer View of the Hinterland (2014).

Associate Professor Bryan Walpert has published several collections of poetry in the US, the UK and New Zealand, most recently Native Bird (Makaro Press); a collection of short fiction, Ephraim’s Eyes, which includes the short story, 16 Planets, that won the climate change themed Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Award for fiction. He’s also written two scholarly books on poetry, Resistance to Science in Contemporary American Poetry and the recently published Poetry and Mindfulness: Interruption to a Journey.

Lecture details:
Can poetry save the Earth? 31 May, 6.30pm: Sir Neil Waters Lecture Theatre (SNW300), Massey University Auckland campus, Albany.
Register at

If all that hasn't put you off, feel free to put in an appearance tonight at the lecture. Failing that, you can see the poems I'm going to be reading as well as the images from my powerpoint here, on my Papyri website. (Hint: it's likely to involve both Paul Celan and John Clare):

Gisèle Celan-Lestrange (1927-1991): "Etching"

[all pictures of the event courtesy of Bronwyn Lloyd]:

Jo Emeney, Bryan Walpert & Jack Ross

Monday, May 14, 2018


Wiktor Gorka: Cabaret (1972)

My initially tepid interest in Christopher Isherwood started off as a by-product of a far more serious Auden obsession. Isherwood was a close friend (indeed occasional lover) and collaborator of Auden's, who also wrote a lot about him, therefore - I needed to collect all of his books.

Howard Coster: Auden & Isherwood (1937)

That is, in a nutshell, pretty much how a bibliophile's mind works. You start off collecting one thing, but then you have to start a series of sub-collections to flesh out the context of your object of desire (whatever it may be: poetry, military history, the 1001 Nights ...).

The result, twenty or thirty years later, is a living space stuffed to the gills with books and pictures and boxfiles of papers. Freud had a name for it, I'm afraid: the anal-retentive personality. Speaks for itself, really. But it does make for interesting times when you actually get around to reading some of the results of this fixation.

In this particular case, I've just finished reading through Isherwood's immense diary, published in four volumes between 1996 and 2012, in an edition scrupulously edited by Auden scholar Katherine Bucknell.

Of course, the picture above reveals just why Isherwood is really famous: because his Berlin stories inspired John Van Druten's play "I am a Camera," which, in its turn, morphed into the smash-hit Broadway musical turned multiple Oscar-winning film Cabaret. In other words, he's most celebrated for two things he didn't write himself, and didn't even particularly approve of (though he was happy to cash the cheques they earned him).

Christopher Isherwood: Goodbye to Berlin (1939)

A rather more accurate portrait of Isherwood was provided by Tom Ford's 2009 film A Single Man. This is at least as autobiographical as the Berlin stories - which is to say, not very - but succeeds in giving an impression (at least) of where he ended up: a gay man stuck in a repressed, heterosexual world which he will never be allowed to fit into. (You'll notice that I had to go pretty far afield to find a version of the film poster which didn't imply that it concerned some kind of 'straight' romance between Colin Firth and Julianne Moore).

Tom Ford, dir. A Single Man (2009)

There were a number of ways in which Isherwood was outrageous, of course. Not just the homosexuality, which he grew increasingly outspoken about as he grew older (and the threat of imprisonment receded); there was also his alleged 'cowardice' in 1939, when he and Auden chose to go and settle in America rather than staying to face the music in beleaguered Britain. Vast amounts of ink were spilt at the time condemning - and justifying - this decision. Auden subsequently explained it by saying that he did it precisely to avoid writing any more poems like "September 1, 1939" or "Spain 1937" - anthemic calls to action of a kind which he subsequently regarded as dishonest and untruthful.

Isherwood, by contrast, was no stranger to running away. He'd had himself sent down from Cambridge when he felt he was at risk of acclimatising to its stuffy attitudes by composing the answers to his exams as concealed limericks. He'd subsequently left for Berlin, Greece, and a series of other refuges from the upper-class English background he feared being swallowed up by. California was intended as just one more bolthole, but it was there he got religion and found love (in that order), and where, therefore, he settled for what turned out to be the rest of his life.

Here are the various volumes of his diary, as edited by Auden scholar Katherine Bucknell. They're all enjoyable. The posthumously published memoir Lost Years, in which Isherwood tried to reconstruct a particularly interesting part of his life, shortly after his relocation to America, is in many ways the best. It's extremely frank about (in particular) his sex life - the other volumes were more or less censored since he seems to have meant them for eventual publication.

  1. Isherwood, Christopher. Diaries. Volume One: 1939-1960. Ed. Katherine Bucknell. 1996. Vintage Books. London: Random House, 2011.

  2. Isherwood, Christopher. Lost Years: A Memoir, 1945–1951. Ed. Katherine Bucknell. 2000. Vintage Books. London: Random House, 2001.

  3. Isherwood, Christopher. The Sixties: Diaries Volume Two, 1960-1969. Ed. Katherine Bucknell. Foreword by Christopher Hitchens. 2010. Harper Perennial. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2011.

  4. Isherwood, Christopher. Liberation: Diaries Volume Three, 1970-1983. Ed. Katherine Bucknell. Preface by Edmund White. 2012. Vintage Books. London: Random House, 2013.

Basically, Isherwood appears to have met everyone who was there to be met during this immense space of time, from the 1940's to the 1980's. He was banned from Charlie Chaplin's house after his host alleged that he'd pissed on his couch whilst in his cups (Isherwood maintained otherwise, but given he was drunk at the time, it's hard to see how he'd know).

Who else? Stravinsky, Charles Laughton, Brecht, Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, David Hockney, to name just a few, as well as an endless line of eminent Hollywood actors and actresses, walked in and out of his life. The true theme of these diaries is marriage, though: his very complicated longterm relationship with the artist Don Bachardy. This began a little like one of the seduction scenes in A Single Man. Don was the gawky younger brother of one of Isherwood's casual conquests from the beach. He grew up into an immensely talented draftsman, portraitist and painter - each stage painstakingly documented here - as well as a valued collaborator on all of Isherwood's later work as scriptwriter for stage and screen.

Bachardy, in fact, turned out to be something of a phenomenon - so gifted in his own right that the initial push he got from being Isherwood's partner eventually became more of a liability. Their marriage was very volatile - with arguments, infidelities, breaks, non-exclusive arrangements at various points - but, finally, durable. It's not easy to warm to the earlier Herr Issyvoo of the Berlin stories, but Don Bachardy's older partner Dobbin is a far more likeable and protean creature.

One can see how Isherwood's obsession with documenting and recording his own life baffled many readers at the time, who saw it as an increasingly boring quest - especially after his apparent surrender to Lala Land after those fascinating chronicles of Germany and China in the turbulent thirties. Now, though, I think it can be seen as something hugely rewarding: an honest record of a way of life which will retain its interest not just as an historical vignette, but as a comfort to those whose own lives may seem (at times) as chaotic as his.

And, while he may have seen his greatest success in character portrayal as the "Christopher" of the Berlin novels and later memoirs, one would have to add that the Don Bachardy of the Diaries turns out, in the end, to be far more beguiling. How many completely believable portrayals of true love can you think of? Not many, that's for sure. The Isherwood-Bachardy partnership is certainly a strong contender for inclusion among them, though.

Don Bachardy: Isherwood (1937)

Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood


  1. Isherwood, Christopher. All the Conspirators. 1928. Foreword by the Author. 1957. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.

  2. Isherwood, Christopher. The Memorial: Portrait of a Family. 1932. London: The Hogarth Press Ltd., 1952.

  3. Isherwood, Christopher. Mr. Norris Changes Trains. 1935. Auckland: Penguin NZ, 1944.

  4. Isherwood, Christopher. Goodbye to Berlin. 1939. Penguin Books 504. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1945.

  5. Isherwood, Christopher. The Berlin of Sally Bowles: Mr. Norris Changes Trains / Goodbye to Berlin. 1935 & 1939. London: Book Club Associates / The Hogarth Press Ltd., 1975.

  6. Isherwood, Christopher. Prater Violet. 1945. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

  7. Isherwood, Christopher. The World in the Evening. 1954. Penguin Book 2399. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.

  8. Isherwood, Christopher. Down There on a Visit. 1959. A Bard Book. New York: Avo Books, 1978.

  9. Isherwood, Christopher. A Single Man. 1964. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

  10. Isherwood, Christopher. A Meeting by the River. 1967. Magnum Books. London: Methuen Paperbacks Ltd., 1982.

  11. Autobiography:

  12. Isherwood, Christopher. Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties. 1938. Magnum Books. London: Methuen Paperbacks Ltd., 1979.

  13. Isherwood, Christopher. Kathleen and Frank. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1971.

  14. Isherwood, Christopher. Christopher and His Kind, 1929-1939. 1976. Magnum Books. London: Methuen Paperbacks Ltd., 1978.

  15. Isherwood, Christopher. My Guru and His Disciple. London: Eyre Methuen Ltd., 1980.

  16. Biography:

  17. Isherwood, Christopher. Ramakrishna and His Disciples. 1965. A Touchstone Book. New York: Simon and Schuster, n.d.

  18. Travel:

  19. Isherwood, Christopher. The Condor and the Cows. Illustrated from photos by William Caskey. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1949.

  20. Miscellaneous:

  21. Isherwood, Christopher. Exhumations: Stories / Articles / Verses. 1966. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

  22. Edited:

  23. Isherwood, Christopher, ed. Vedanta for the Western World. 1948. Unwin Books. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1963.

  24. Letters:

  25. Bucknell, Katherine, ed. The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.

  26. Secondary:

  27. Parker, Peter. Isherwood: A Life. 2004. Picador. London: Pan Macmillan Ltd., 2005.