Alice Oswald: Nature Poetry and Climate Change
Seren explores the inextricable links between Writer-in-Residence Alice Oswald's poetic worlds, and our changing one.
In the past century, the planet’s average surface temperature has gone up by about 1.1°C and global sea levels have risen around 8 inches, with 16 of the warmest 17 years on record occurring since 2001. All of this is causing extreme weather patterns with worsening hurricanes, floods and droughts around the world. This is without even mentioning the mass extinction of plant and animal life brought about by increased urbanisation and deforestation. We are causing mass climate and environmental change, and as our planet begins to alter, so must our artistic responses to it.
From William Wordsworth to Ted Hughes, poets have often used nature as a source of inspiration for their works. Groups of poets such as the Romantics wrote reverently about the natural, while also condemning what they viewed as negative environmental change. This change came in the form of sweeping urbanisation brought about by the industrial revolution in the late-17th to the early-18th century. Reactions came in the form of poems such as London by William Blake, who wrote about the appalling conditions of urban areas where ‘the chimney-sweeper’s cry.’
Like the Romantics, poets today continue to draw inspiration from the natural, and similarly react to changes in it. Both of the two most recent British Poet Laureates, Andrew Motion and Carol Ann Duffy, have produced pieces for The Guardian’s climate change campaign. Their poems, The Sorcerer’s Mirror and Keep it in the Ground, respectively, deal with issues surrounding the problems of climate change and environmental pollution. To have the two most prominent national poets of their time’s both produce works regarding these issues highlights it’s importance, as well as the changing state of nature poetry.
Our current Writer-in-Residence, Alice Oswald, while having stated in the past that she is ‘not a nature poet’, nevertheless draws heavily from the natural world for use in her poetry. The relationship between people and nature is a major theme in much of Oswald’s work, with her T. S. Elliot-award-winning collection Dart being a prime example of this. Following the journey of the river downstream through the eyes of the people who live and work beside it, the poem interweaves human perspectives with that of the river’s.
Oswald states in a preface to the poem that she used ‘records as life-models from which to sketch out a series of characters – linking their voices into a sound-map of the river.’ The use of interchangeable pronouns throughout the poem between the people and the river clearly show that Oswald understands this idea of a ‘linking’ between people and nature. It illustrates that we are as much a part of the environment as the actual nature itself, especially when we work with it in a setting such as a river.
While Oswald’s poetry is not explicitly environmentalist, an argument could be made that it doesn’t have to be. It can be said that by simply using poetry as a motif Oswald is promoting the natural world that we as a people are ravaging in our never-ending quest for resources. This can be seen in her poem OldWood. In the first half of the poem Oswald takes the point of view of a tree chopper, describing the taking down of trees and the near disappearance of the red squirrel as a result. Then in the footnotes she takes a critical, mournful attitude as she lists the trees which have been chopped down, describing that ‘C is for both Copse and Corpse/ as G is for Grove and Grave.’
Without explicitly calling for the protection of the environment, Oswald is subtly condemning acts of environmental violence and destruction, which is in itself a very environmentalist stance. To write anything about nature is to be aware of the changing state of it in our world. For Oswald, and other contemporary nature poets, writing about nature is also to write about climate change, because the two are now so inextricably linked. Any promotion of the natural through creative forms like poetry is its own form of activism, and while the environment continues to change, so must our environmental poetry.
by Seren Livie