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


Richard said...

That was a brilliant lecture by all of you Jack. I just listened to Johanna Emeney talking on radio to Kim Hill. I must look out for her books. I kept on with a diary or journal that turned into Hospital which was a a kind of insight from the patient (me mostly) point of view. It wasn't planned I had started it before I broke my leg. Fascinating that Johanna found a family in the US. I wrote a poem about my grandfather I never knew as it also included the grandmother.

There are many different ways to tackle poetry. For example I myself define poetry as what ever I want it to be for a start. Nor do I fear critics. I am a little averse to being published in some places and so on. But I hate to judge others. One book I couldn't read was not poetry by a Dr. it was a book of photographs of patients I saw. Actually now I think of it it was an interesting idea.

As to saving the earth the other "project" I did was called 'The Endless Poem". It had no purpose and no message and it was not necessarily to mean anything and it wasn't either necessarily ever to be read by anyone after I finished including myself! I started it as I liked the book I saw in a junk shop. The rules were: no full stops, no question marks, and not to turn back as Joyce does with FW but to be a continuous stream. I wrote it over years. And as I said to you, it became 'of the process'...

I would feel limited if I had to save the earth is what I am saying!! As to saving myself, I can try to do that.

In a way there was a similar (more a debate) about 1994 or so: I think it was Alan Loney, and two other well known poets who I forget just now! But the question there was along the lines of Shelley's "Unacknowledged Legislator" thing. Loney (who is a poet I admire despite all) was for the negative more or less. It will come back to me who else was there.

In an indirect way maybe art can help. This seems to be Schopehauer's conclusion. He was convinced that all is horror, and I sympathise in many ways: and found he was in tune with aspects of Buddhism etc. But he got to art. And Heidegger used poetry in his search for being etc

You had a good mix and Celan, when you read it, that reading impacted on me. I think that was a brilliant reading of Celan. I couldn't connect to many of Celan's poem but as you read the 'gorselight' thing something cracked inside me. I think reading beside you Jack I hadn't noticed how good you are at reading poetry. Concentrating on giving a performance myself!

But also re John Clare. (What do you think of Smart's 'Jubilate Agno'? Years ago Scott phoned me in great excitement, he had discovered it. Another madman's poem so I was influenced by that and also my reading of and watching TV things of Oliver Sacks)...He does deepen...esp. if he wrote about house flies!

Richard said...

I read Joanna Emeney's poem about the crack that appeared in her wall. A very good poem! It reminds me of some of the problems I have here in this house. When I broke my leg, it was around then I used to sit in my house with a bucket beside me catching the drips! Some scary stuff. But every thing can be fixed or there is some way around things.

Not sure about the earth though. When I was young we didn't think about any of these things. Petrol was cheap, no one was poor as far as I knew (I suppose some were) but that the world was coming to an end was focused on things such as the missile crisis and Kennedy's fanatical anti-Communism that nearly precipitated a World War. He also got off side with the Right, or ex Cubans etc. I didn't even know where Vietnam was. I didn't study geography but I did know a bit and knew about Indo China.

But population became a big issue. We, as humans, seem simply to be too successful.

Brian Walpert was good also on the ambiguity of ways of seeing things.

Hone Tuwhare I understand. We both worked at the same place. When I met him I understood him immediately. We got on well. I know that kind of man. But I am not sure...No Ordinary Sun we had about the time it came out.

So there is the Maori connection. Maori were more or less conscious of he need to conserve in so far as they could see the picture. There was a respect for the greater world they lived in.

Yes, we have to be, as poets at least (or anyone I suppose) aware of the issues. And I like old Turner (he's closer to my age) shooing away his cat from the birds. But birds and ducks are potential transmitters of dangerous viruses it is reported in the latest Listener.

Still they are beautiful things. The world is a strange and a beautiful place. And I think that life and the world is resilient. There are always challenges. I say I think: there are no guarantees, but we can only do a little bit here and there, each of us. Reminds me of a poem by Keith Sinclair calling for us all to be kinder to each other...