‘A stain from the sky is descending’: how Irish poetry raises awareness of climate crisis

Irish poets wrote about climate change and nature long before it was popular or profitable

The epic lament for Cill Chais is less about trees being cut down, and more of a lament for the destruction of the ecosphere. Photograph: Eric Luke

The epic lament for Cill Chais is less about trees being cut down, and more of a lament for the destruction of the ecosphere. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

I can imagine a reader of The Irish Times, sipping their coffee, looking at the title of this book, Contemporary Irish Poetry and the Climate Crisis, and remarking: “just what we need as the polar icecaps melt, storms increase, water levels rise and the planet is generally in a crisis state – a book on poetry about the climate crisis!”

Indeed, this may then give rise to another chapter in the ongoing debate about the value of humanities and arts in an increasingly commodified and neoliberal age. So I suppose the first thing I need to do, as one of the editors of this book, is to justify its existence. This is an easier task than one might think as, to paraphrase Myles na gCopaleen, Irish poets were writing about climate change and nature long before it was popular or profitable to do so.

Unusually, this book looks at poetry in both Irish and English, tracing connections from the Irish-language nature poets through the epic lament for Cill Chais, and the lines we all learned at school: “cad a dhéanfaifimd feasta gan adhmaid / tá deireadh na gcoillte ar lár”, where the deforestation of the place is seen, in Thomas Kinsella’s translation, as an apocalyptic climate event: “a stain from the sky is descending”.

The poem is less about trees being cut down, and more of a lament for the destruction of their ecosphere, and of their way of living in the place. It is a Cassandra-like calling out of climate crisis avant la lettre, as this poem was written in the late 17th or early 18th century, thereby anticipating ecotheory and its notions of the Anthropocene by some 200 years.

The term Anthropocene was coined two decades ago by the atmospheric scientists PJ Crutzen and EF Stoermer to denote the current epoch where human activity has assumed the force of a geologic event in its transformation of the biosphere. In Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept, Timothy Clark points out how the climate crisis has elicited a new form of ecocriticism, one that no longer relies upon “inherited conceptions of the human, the social, culture,” but that subjects them to radical revision. Such an ecocriticism focuses on the ways in which texts operate on multiple scales, grant agency and worth to the nonhuman, and reveal the permeability of “human bodies and psyches … to material environment effects”.

Under such conditions, the poetic text’s resistance to closure becomes a valuable asset. Paul de Man’s view that rhetoric (figurative language) “radically suspends logic and opens up vertiginous possibilities of referential aberration”, indicates how the most significant linguistic feature of poetry disrupts prevailing modes of understanding reality, and expands the horizons of interpretation. This figural “unpredictability” and “uncontrollability”, so characteristic of the poetic text, parallel the turbulent ways in which “living systems” respond to the Anthropocene.

It is not surprising, then, that Susanna Lidström and Greg Garrard accord poetry a privileged status in the Anthropocene literary canon. The prevalent narrative genres, even in the new millennium, remain tethered in varying degrees to mimesis. Bound more tightly to their immediate contexts, these narrative works are less adaptable to the scalar scope of the climate crisis. Poems, on the other hand, are “animated by and able to contain open-ended, multiple and even contradictory levels of meaning”.

Claims for this salutary effect of ecocriticism are pervasive, with John Felstiner noting that poetry instills in individuals “the will to lighten our footprint in a world where all of nature matters vitally”, while Timothy Morton argues that “a poem forces us to acknowledge that we coexist with uncanny beings in a groundless yet vivid reality”.

Over the last two decades, ecocritical studies of Irish literature have proliferated, expanding our notion of the Irish literary terrain, and transforming our perception of its familiar landmarks. The accelerating pace of climate change, and its attendant effects, has invested this ecocritical project with even greater urgency. Writings from an ecocritical and ecotheoretical perspective have gradually gained a foothold in the literature, and a number of significant collections have demarcated the critical pathways of this perspective on the imbrication of poetry and notions of the environment.

In 2011, James McElroy offered an overview of the field to that point, and in this, he sketched out the development of what might be termed Irish ecopoetics. Interestingly, he begins the survey by going to the work of the early Irish language scholar Kuno Meyer, who says that an intense love of nature “in its tiniest phenomena and its grandest” was central to the outlook of the ancient Celt. Considering Ireland’s historic attachment to nature, woodlands and the earth as metaphors and symbols, it is hardly surprising that Irish writing would be fertile ground for ecopoetic readings. The Irish language poetry that has been passed down is suffused with nature and images of nature.

Derek Gladwin points to three seminal works in the “growing trend in Irish studies called ecocriticism”: Tim Wenzell’s Emerald Green: An Ecocritical Study of Irish Literature (2009); Christine Cusick’s edited collection, Out of the Earth: Ecocritical Readings of Irish Texts (2010); and Eamonn Wall’s Writing the Irish West: Ecologies and Traditions (2011), also noting that Gerry Smyth was possibly the first to introduce the ecocritical perspective in his essay “Shite and Sheep: An Ecocritical Perspective on Two Recent Irish Novels (2000).

The essays gathered in this volume reflect the principles attributed above to the kind of ecopoetics most suited to the intellectual and aesthetic demands posed by the Anthropocene. They acknowledge the scalar challenges evoked by the climate crisis by exploring the intersections of local and global, distant past and imminent future, in the texts that they examine. In doing so, they reveal how environmental issues are inextricably interwoven with historical, cultural, and linguistic concerns: how, for instance, the extinction of the Irish language reverberates in the extinction of local flora and fauna; or how the past experience of colonial dispossession foreshadows the climatological dispossessions to come. And perhaps most importantly, each in its own way addresses the profound reciprocity between the human and nonhuman, whether in the form of traditional music echoing natural soundscapes, the intimate kinship between animals and humans, the interweaving of poetic form and vegetal life, or the agency that bogs and other landscapes exert upon human consciousness.

The poets highlighted in the chapters below range from familiar presences in the contemporary Irish literary canon – Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Paula Meehan, Sinead Morrissy, Moya Cannon – to lesser-known figures like the experimental poet Maurice Scully, Irish language poets Pádhraic Ó Finneadha, Jackie Mac Donncha, Máire Dinny Wren, Proinsias Mac a’Bhaird, Bríd Ní Mhóráin and Simon Ó Faoláin, and newer voices such as Ciaran Berry, Stephen Sexton and Séan Hewitt.

That these essays address the issue of global climate change primarily in an Irish context may appear contradictory. As Timothy Clark notes, literary studies moored in national frameworks seem increasingly inadequate in the face of a planetary catastrophe; however, a globalised perspective can only be launched from a local foothold. In that regard, Ireland’s physical and cultural environment makes it a particularly fertile site for an ecopoetics attuned to the climate crisis.

The intertwining of sea and land so central to Irish life and literature becomes even more pressing in the era of rising ocean levels. The island’s most distinctive landform, the increasingly endangered peat bog, is also an exceptionally efficient carbon “sink”. Its poetic tradition is grounded in pre-Christian Celtic perspective that celebrates the natural world in all its manifestations. Ireland’s subsequent history of diaspora and incorporation in a world-wide empire has infused its literature with what the poet John Montague referred to as global regionalism – the dialectic of “a sense of place and a sense of planet” that for Ursula Heise characterises ecological thinking in the Anthropocene.

So to return to our coffee-drinking Irish Times reader’s initial question about whether we need a book on poetry and climate crisis, my response (admittedly partial) would be yes, yes we do, because language is the medium through which we know and intuit our world, and poetry, as possibly the most heightened and polysemic form of language, voices concerns in a unique and felt manner, about climate issues which are central to our human being, and our planetary being, in the 21st century and beyond.

Contemporary Irish Poetry and the Climate Crisis, Routledge Studies in Irish Writing, Volume 2, edited by Andrew J Auge and Eugene O’Brien (Routledge, 2021)

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