Nature Poetry After Nature II: Elegy; or, Storm Clouds of the Long Nineteenth Century
This is the second of three posts in which I make into a kind of strange serial an informal talk I gave at Marymount University on Friday, September 25, 2015. (The first post, "Fresno Pastoral, is here.) The task was to explain why English matters to me, and to talk about my new thinking about ecological poetics for a general audience of parents, students, and faculty. I'm grateful to Eric Norton for the chance to think through some of the largest questions of my next project in a personal way, and to Tonya Howe, Sarah H. Ficke, and others for the exciting conversations during and after my somewhat unorthodox -- because biographical -- presentation. These posts are modified, and expanded, from the oral presentation I gave.
In this post I'm going to move from the personal to the aesthetic, but I'll start by shifting from space -- Fresno, California-- to time. Lots of time. Try quickly to find yourself on the diagram below: here we are, in the long corkscrew of geological time, at the very tip. The Holocene occupies only the past 12,000 years of the 4.6 billion year lifetime of this planet. The history of human civilization is a tiny blip on the scales of geological time, a scalar realization that's doubly sublime since Earth's spectacularly long life is itself only a fraction of timescale of the universe as a whole, which Slate tells us is 13.82 billion years old.
As has now become widely known, scientists and humanists have with increasing unanimity adopted the term "Anthropocene" to name the period after the Holocene -- our contemporary -- after its most important geological agent, anthropos. The precise dating of this new Age of Man is debated but its conceptual force is not: in the modern epoch, man’s activity has permanently altered the chemical makeup of the earth, abolishing "nature" and reconfiguring the world such that our actions since the fossil fuel era will leave a record in rock and be legible, as no more than a hundredth of an inch of sediment, millions of years into the future (Zalasiewicz 2).
All of this has become familiar, but in this new drama of periodization it's worth remembering that the nineteenth century -- the period I work on -- was not just the first fully industrialized epoch or the moment when the steam engine, despite wild inefficiencies, began the great transfer of carbon from the earth to the air that would become the fossil fuel era's decisive and suicidal contribution to the earth's geological record.
But the nineteenth century also knew that the catastrophe of their coal-fired present wasn't only, or in any simple way, a catastrophe. It was also beautiful. Painters like Whistler, Monet, and Pissarro took "fog" as their subject, and the smeared, open brushwork of J.M. Turner's depictions of English skies -- the "pure painting" of his virtuosic late style-- would have been impossible without the atmospheric degeneration that made those skies so dynamic to look at.
In famous paintings like Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway (1844), it's impossible to miss the quality of light, because that is what the paintings are about, the light of modernity: the yellowed gloom produced by the dark clouds of soot and diffused "fogs" that were only part fog and mostly smoke, particulated coal, and acid.
The painting above, Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (exhibited 1842), finds Turner radicalizing this mashup of nature and culture. The "snow storm" of the painting's title is more properly a storm of soot, or what the title calls "steam." This blackly human element, afterimage of fossil fuel combustion, churns together with the seemingly natural force of the snow to the point where humankind and its other can no longer be so easily prised apart. In a lecture called “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century” (1884), John Ruskin called this churning darkness of our carbon modernity "a plague-cloud." But in Modern Painters (1843-1860), Ruskin had already realized that his era's dissipated ecological catastrophe created the conditions for Turner’s most spectacular images.
A painting like Wreckers Coast of Northumberland, c. 1834/6, below, seems to take this intertwinement as its central problematic: the wreckers are salvaging a demolished boat so they can redeem its broken parts for money; they're aiming, in this dialectical operation, to convert disaster into some strange redemption, making irretrievable loss into an uncanny sort of gain.
In our day of course this long ecocide has advanced. It’s instructive to realize that the air Turner would have been breathing, if he was in a Park in Central London in the mid 19th century, had 301 parts per million of carbon dioxide (Brimblecombe 140). According to the website C02Now.org, which updates readings of our atmospheric greenhouse gas in real time, we are as of October 23, 2015, breathing air that is 397.64 ppm -- fully a third again over Turner's levels, and we are adding 2 ppm every year. This level is of course well past the 350 ppm threshold climate scientists more than a decade ago set as an upper limit beyond which would come irreversible geologically-scaled change. The gathering hurricanes in our southern oceans are just one sign that we are well into what is effectively a new era in the history of human time, a storm cloud of the very long nineteenth century.
It was 1989 that Bill McKibben’s influential The End of Nature explained for the first time -- in clear, impossible to mistake prose-- that human beings live in an era when nature, conceived as a force or set of systems independent from man, no longer exists. We permeate the world, and our vast transfer of carbon from the ground into the atmosphere over the last two centuries (in processes like Aaron’s mining of fossil coal, discussed in the first post) means that now, even the most seemingly remote or “pristine” corners of earth -- think of ice sheets, rain forests, permafrost -- are so touched by human activity as to bear our fingerprints in their very chemical structure. Understood as a category outside of human will and activity, nature no longer exists. And without nature, as McKibben writes, “there is nothing but us” (see Ronda, here).
McKibben’s book came out in 1989, when I was thirteen, and when our current students, if my math is right, were still a half decade from being born. This means that the generation in our classrooms, a generation that includes my own children, has always lived after nature. To talk about an “after” to “nature” is to confirm the geological insight that we live in a definitively new epoch, but it is also to call attention to the melancholy infused in that formulation, its hint of requiem. Something has been lost.
Elegy is the poetry of loss. And since its earliest days, elegies have traced their speakers’ psychological processes of mourning. In traditional psychoanalysis, melancholia is conceived as a state of paralysis or suspended animation, a dwelling with loss that’s too close to that lost thing, too intimate with what’s died. It can’t let go. For Freud it was unhealthy: a flailing period of grief, antithetical to action. In melancholia there can be no moving on. But the word poetry derives from poiesis, an act of making or doing. Taken in its broadest sense to mean human creativity and acts of aesthetic making, poetry names an action that reorganizes the world. In this sense, poetry doesn’t only linger in loss but (in Freud’s terms) moves on; it creates.
Among other things, this means that the entire globe can now be thought of as a kind of strange poetic work -- brute nature transformed by our action into something new.
The photos at left and below are captured from Google Earth: randomly generated snapshots of the earth’s surface that reveal, to me anyway, how fully man and nature now intertwine, and also how horrifically beautiful that intermingling can be.
Yet the idea that poetry, as poesis, means action also raises the question of what poetry in its widest sense -- art itself-- might do in the face of our ever-worsening environmental crisis. What new conceptions of nature and human agency does our moment require? And what new forms and genres -- or what old ones, revived strategically in this moment of danger-- might best make sense of our dramatically revised relationship with what used to be called “nature”?
In spring of 2015 I organized a symposium around these and related questions, but here I want to move toward a conclusion by asking what poetry can do, and for that we need to talk about the sea.
Since Homer the ocean has been the domain of poets, but our ocean is no longer Homer’s ocean. The transfer of atmospheric carbon has acidified the planet's water to an extent that species are dying in record numbers; the Great Barrier Reef, among the world’s largest and diverse concentrations of life, will be entirely dead by the time my oldest daughter is 50. In a startling online lecture, oceanographer Jeremy Jackson calls this simply our "Ocean Apocalypse."
How does poetry register this change, this loss? Here’s Matthew Arnold in 1867, in one of the greatest and most beautiful poems of the nineteenth century, “Dover Beach.” You remember it. Arnold's speaker is looking to the sea to index the fraught state of his own mind. Its famous first line, “The sea is calm tonight,” mirrors in its form the placidity it sees on the water: three beats of iambic verse, a trimeter, and the flattest verb in English, to be, create a perfect, powerful symmetry that is for the author of Culture and Anarchy the image of order itself, full, fair, and whole:
The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
It's not static, exactly, but the permanence of this cyclical ebbing and flowing is again mirrored in Arnold's verse, in one of my all-time favorite poetic effects: "Listen," he says to us, "you hear the grating roar / Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, / At their return, up the high strand, / Begin, and cease, and then again begin..." And then again begin: the effect is musical, magical: Sophocles heard this same cadence, Arnold thinks, because while the human world around us might crumble and go bad --while modernity might erode our most important institutions or even the capacity for relation itself-- the sea is always the sea. Its sound, painful as it is, never goes away: an "eternal note."
For Jorie Graham in 2008, after the end of nature, the sea is a different sea. And in "Sea Change," her riff on Ariel's song in The Tempest, the ocean becomes not an emblem of stoic permanence or civilizational continuity but change itself. It is a once-natural effect, like the weather, that is now broken, in need of "repair," and the symptom of this brokenness is that the world is strangely in flux. Things are "[u]n-/natural," aimed at "the unknown future":
Graham's carefully impacted metaphorics ensure that it is not the tide or the water but “the permanent” itself that now “is ebbing.” The idiosyncratic and hyper-rigid formal structure here, with long lines alternating with shorter ones enjambed spectacularly down the middle of the page, makes unmissable the shaped nature of this artifact. Along with with self-reflexive effects that tell us how "the future," like the poem itself, "takes shape / too quickly," this structure calls attention to the poem's formalized writtenness, its status a made thing shored against ruin in the most grandiose, Eliotic sense of that phrase.
In Graham's neo-modernist catastrophe poem -- The Tempest meets The Waste Land-- the world is problematically disintegrating, but the verse itself leverages order against this anomie, providing as though by proxy what the poem calls “a state of / being which did exist yesterday, calm and true.” This nostalgia for what "did exist yesterday" is a yearning for lost order, and the crux of the poem's desperate attempt to have in art what in life has been lost. This nostalgic or compensatory structure positions poetry as a cure and shows Graham to be more Arnoldian than even Arnold. As in the mode of pastoral I discussed in my earlier post, Graham's longing is for a lost time of simplicity and solidity, when things had not yet fallen apart. The poetry is conservative in this not-exactly pejorative sense.
In the next post I'll conclude this series by looking at poems by Juliana Spahr that refuse the consolatory and aestheticizing motion of Graham's neo-Arnolidan nature poetry. Rather than seeking to restore an imaginary lost order, these poems use the full repertoire of poetic effect to think retrospect and progress together, pushing mourning and melancholia into the same frame. Building on Margaret Ronda's brilliant reading of Spahr in "Mourning and Melancholia in the Anthropocene," I'll try to sketch out how Spahr -- like Gerard Manley Hopkins before her-- helps us imagine how we might think simultaneously disaster and redemption, both dwelling in an irreversible loss -- refusing to leave it behind-- and moving on into a future we might someday build together.
You can read the third and last post in this series, "We were born at the beginning of these things," here.
Nathan K. Hensley
Here's where I'll paste fragments of readings, ideas, and questions.