WITH COP26 now past history and all the hyper-inflated jet-setters flown away like so many burst balloons, Alan Riach persists in asking the question that simply doesn’t go away: “How can poetry and the arts be of immediate and practical help in the crisis of ecology and climate breakdown?”

ASKED whether he would consider himself a “landscape poet”, the American Edward Dorn replied: “If you are on Earth, you are on a landscape, and there’s nothing much you can do about that.” When pressed further, he said: “You’re talking more about ‘haunt’ actually. That gets to involve the ‘human in place’.”

And this is the key. “Both Lawrence and Pound took their intellectual cues from Thomas Hardy, who was the literary giant of their youth. If you follow Lawrence, to have a true local, you have to have gods of the local. You can’t have monotheism. It does not tolerate the local. Monotheism is centrality of power and total control.”

If we’re trying to save the planet, pilgrims, that’s what we’re opposed to. Small nations matter when diversity rules.

Dorn refers to religion and politics, but the same principle applies to language and nationality. Despite himself, TS Eliot (below) expressed this in 1933, after travelling through Scotland, in “Rannoch, by Glencoe”, the only one of his five landscape poems to evoke Scotland as a terrain beyond monotheism, beyond its author’s qualifying presence and control.

The National:

Eliot’s greater contemporary, Hugh MacDiarmid, in his political commitment to Scotland’s independence, was not a “local” poet, even though the Borders, and later, Shetland, were geographical localities which informed his writing deeply. MacDiarmid’s understanding of Scotland as a diversity of landscapes was confirmed by his experience in the 1930s of the archipelagos of Shetland, then Orkney and the Western Isles. This became clear with the publication of

The Islands of Scotland (1939), Collected Poems (1962) and his last book, Direadh (1974), in which he locates himself at the summit of one of the Cuillins, the mountain range on the Isle of Skye, looking over and imagining the whole country, considering the human and natural terrain in the moment not only of his presence but also the geological history that precedes it, and what will follow. The title is a Gaelic word meaning the act of surmounting, or “getting higher”.

MacDiarmid (below) came forward into that generation of poets who were pre-eminently publishing after 1960, who could be described more correctly as poets of “local attachment”: Robert Garioch, Norman MacCaig, Somhairle MacGill-Eain/Sorley MacLean, Edwin Morgan, George Mackay Brown, Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn/Iain Crichton Smith.

In the generation that followed, in Scotland, the most conspicuous reconfiguration has been in terms of gendered identity, the poetic articulation of the experiences, perspectives, understandings and judgements of women, not least Liz Lochhead, Meg Bateman, Jackie Kay, Kathleen Jamie, Gerda Stevenson and Gerrie Fellows. Still, the idea of “radical landscape” applies to all three generations.

MacDiarmid is not familiarly known as a champion of ecology. He’s not well-known as a leader in the battle to redress the crises of climate breakdown, environment catastrophe and the global exploitation of natural resources.

The National: Portrait of Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid in a garden, photographed by Radio Times to mark his 80th birthday in connection with the BBC television program 'Rebel Poet', July 1972. First printed in Radio Times issue 2543, page 11, August 3rd 1972.

But he is. In his autobiography Lucky Poet (1943), in the chapter entitled “The Kind of Poetry I Want”, MacDiarmid writes this: “The best instance of the complementary and mutually corrective development of poetry and science is perhaps that cited in the following verses:

A poetry fully alive to all the implications

Of the fact that one of the great triumphs

Of poetic insight was the way in which

It prepared the minds of many

For the concept of evolution,

The degree to which the popular mind

Was sensitized by it to the appeal of Nature,

And thus how poetry has progressed

Until, for example, flowers

Can never be thought of again

In a generalized way.

Chaucer’s ‘floures white and rede’

Gave way to Spenser’s April eclogue,

To pinks, columbines, gilly-flowers,

Carnations, sops-in-wine, cowslips,

Paunce, and chevisaunce.

Bacon’s “Of Gardens” is as much a formal plan as a Loggan print or a Jacobean Great House; conceived as a whole, that garden is thought of as a generalised form of beauty.

It is the whole that matters, not the parts,

And where they are considered separately

The parts still tended to be

Such lesser exercises in design

As a topiary. But the flower regarded as symbol

Rescued our forefathers from these horticultural patterns

And brought man and flower

Into a new relation. By poets like Herbert and Vaughan

Tree and plant were recognized as having a place

In the same economy of which man was a part.

They obey the inner law of their being

And it is for man to emulate them.

‘In the beauty of poems’, as Whitman said,

‘Are henceforth the tuft and final applause of science.

…Facts are showered over with light,

The daylight is lit with more volatile light,

The poets of the cosmos advance

Through all interpositions and coverings

And turmoils and stratagems

To first principles. …Beyond all precedent

Poetry will have to do with actual facts.’”

In other words, the evolution of poetry is palpable from a period in which “floures” were “white and rede” to one in which particular species, “pinks, columbines,

gilly-flowers” and so on, are specified in their own identities. These discrete identities form a complex, living totality.

Wordsworth (below) takes this further than Shakespeare and MacDiarmid takes it further again. The particular and the global are interconnected, interdependent identities that make life possible.

Just as Scotland is distinct from England, and one among a global constellation of identities.

The National: An image of William Wordsworth  from an 1893 antique book "The Town" by Leigh Hunt..

Human beings imposed symbolic authority on actual flowers, but then, through identifying their differences, could see “the whole” as much greater than “the parts” only because “the parts” were so individuated that they could make up a more complex, living, inter-dependent totality, rather than a generalisation of which human power is the master and the exploiter. Within this totality, humankind has a part, but every generation must learn how to be part of “Nature” rather than assume that we are superior to it. Being a learning animal, one generation in which this is forgotten obscures its truth for the next one, unless it is returned from other places, which is why it is our good fortune not to all be living in the same time, at the same rate.

We do not march to one drum, whether it’s banging in London, Washington or Beijing. There are various speeds in this world, different valencies. Education always comes from more than a single source.

Poetry, more than any other art – because it deals in words, nuance and specificities of meaning, and at the same time acknowledges a greater coherence or correspondence between different things – is particularly able to engage

self-consciously as well as intuitively in that evolutionary process. It helps in the sensitisation of the world. It helps grow human awareness of the vulnerability, strengths, delicacy and enduring multi-faceted nature of reality.

This is the help that poetry can be in addressing the climate crisis. But it depends upon two things: people who can read it accurately, and poets who get their facts right.