“Listen to the science!” Sir David Attenborough said on board the British Antarctic Survey ship, October 28, 2021. Alan Riach says, “Yes, and LISTEN TO THE ARTS!”

WILL COP26 amount to no more than a vacuous assembly of hyper-inflated politicos bringing Glasgow to a halt and sidelining Scotland for a series of futile pontifications and bad faith promises intended for breaking?

I have another question to ask: “How can poetry and the arts be of any immediate and practical help in the crisis of ecology and climate breakdown?” This is the first of two essays delivering the answer. Perhaps it seems a peculiarly futile question, or frivolous to the point of irrelevance, but an answer does exist. Or rather, more than one answer.

Poetry and ecology are interwoven realities, demanding an exercise of imagination beyond the control of any government’s political interests. But governments which deny them are bringing all life to its end.

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The arts, and poetry especially, give us a capacity to come to human terms with what John Berger, in an essay entitled A Story for Aesop, calls the “address of the landscape”. This is the meaning of place experienced not only in its daily visualisation but also in how a particular environment addresses its inhabitants, its residents, the people who live in and with it, in its economic, physical, and social relations, through and across generations.

This always has immediate application. Poetry and the arts are vital to it. As the American environment activist and writer Edward Abbey says, “We stand for what we stand on!” Abbey was engaged in direct action but in his writing, he remains an inspiration. And the inspiration in poetry and the arts have effects that are both deeper and longer-lasting than almost any politician.

Poetry has a unique capacity to offer a kind of understanding, approaching, seeing and comprehending that which is staring us in the face, a way of thinking about it, a method of helping us to see into it, and beyond it.

This is evident in the ways poetry has changed our understanding of the world around us over time. In his book Lyric Powers (2008), Robert Von Hallberg writes: “Poetry is retentive: it preserves the beliefs but also the wishes, misgivings, and doubts of poets and their cultures.”

He quotes Wallace Stevens: “Poetry is the sum of its attributes” and abbreviates the whole idea of tradition like this: “Individual poets choose their predecessors and model their art accordingly.”

These terms indicate the method, the practice of the poet, the aesthetic device of the poem, its character as a self-sustaining verbal artefact, but also, crucially, how these two identities, poet and poem,

relate to and mediate between, the selected past and the world as reality, all around us. Our past, present and future: all of which depend entirely upon the earth on which we tread.

Von Hallberg identifies two primary modes of poetry, the orphic and the rhetorical, or we might say the lyric and the discursive. The distinction is not absolute. Nothing in the arts ever is. Categories of absolute security like locked doors may be temporarily useful on a sinking ship but even then, their value depends on the outcome: a slower sinking and abandonment or keeping the ship afloat by sealing off those parts so badly swamped.

But the distinction is helpful. The orphic quality and the discursive or rhetorical quality are different ways of working in art. As regards the “orphic” quality: authority “comes from the root of ‘augment’: with what does poetry augment ordinary language? If there is one answer, it is music.”

POETRY, like almost all the arts, addresses things after they have happened, it brings into visibility the thoughts and feelings we might not have had, or had the leisure to articulate, at the time of certain experiences happening, and to make a new, present-tense experience of them.

Von Hallberg again: “Poets are far removed from power, and this strengthens their authority.” What they wield is not power but authority. This is what Shelley meant by calling poets the world’s “unacknowledged legislators”.

But this depends upon those of us can read and recognise the authority and acknowledge its legislation. By using this capacity we not only respond and comprehend, we might also convey and communicate such understanding. This is the exercise of authority, communication and education, and it alters assumptions.

This is partly what Wordsworth means when he talks of poetry being emotion recollected in tranquillity. It’s partly what the French phrase “l’esprit d’escalier” means, a phrase which doesn’t translate exactly but whose meaning is clear enough.

Would you say, “the spirit of the staircase”? Or, “the principle of the escalator”? Or, “Things look different from higher up” (as Clint Eastwood says in A Fistful of Dollars)? Or in German, “Treppenwitz” (literally, “Staircase wit”)? It means “the rejoinder you think of only after the psychological moment has passed”. Or in office politics: “What I should have said when …”

Poetry takes that common idea and applies it to the world with the most comprehensive sophistication of language and profound understanding of justice. Joseph Conrad puts it like this: “Art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe.” It is redress, in all its forms. And if that draws upon the past in a retrospective sense, it opens towards the future with the imperative of just command.

Poetry and all the arts demand this participation, and it can be hard work, which is another reason why many people shy away from them and are so easily seduced into denigrating their significance.

But if there is any hope for the planet at all, this is where it comes from.

FIONA Stafford, in her book Local Attachments (2010), says this: “the vital significance of local attachments for art arises from truth’s need for strong foundations”. Poetry needs “local attachments” because truth needs real foundations to build on, fly from, and return to.

These foundations and the relations between the truths of literature as they relate directly to the flora of the world through history are beautifully explored and illustrated in Stafford’s two remarkable books, The Long, Long Life of Trees (2016) and The Brief Life of Flowers (2018).

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At the end of the opening essay in the latter volume, Stafford dedicates her book to “the generations of men and women who have devoted their lives to flowers: the planters and breeders, collectors and designers, florists and foresters, artists and writers who enhanced the lives of strangers”.

She explains that it has been written “in celebration of flowers, wild and cultivated, whose delicate forms are still powerful enough to stop us in our tracks and make us wonder”.

That dedication is exemplary. The living things, flowers, trees, all creatural life – and so the earth itself, is “celebrated” most acutely and accurately and with such power that can stop us both by virtue of their own presence – wild or cultivated – and also by the artists and writers who mediate between them and “strangers”.

By such interconnections, we are prompted towards that sense of “wonder”. This is much more than accepting the idea of “landscape” or the earth and its flora and fauna as scenic backdrop. It is to deepen and secure our understanding, our pleasures and responsibilities. And this stage is just the beginning.