Poetry and extinction

The great subjects of literature, they say, are love and death. But isn’t it time we added a third subject? To me, any contemporary poetry that does not in some way acknowledge extinction fails to rise above the level of a diverting parlor game. I mean the extinction of species; of ecological communities and the unique landscapes they give rise to; of unique human cultures, languages and ethnicities. Extinction: the unraveling of creation. The loss of something that can never be replaced.

Deliberate genocide and ecocide (as in so-called mountaintop removal) are of course the most terrible and extreme forms, but even the wholly unintended loss of some obscure moth due to the insatiable demands of our consumer economy is an unpardonable sin. More than that: we should be sensitive enough to the vast stretches of time and the wondrous workings of chance (or divinity — I’m not always sure of the difference) required to bring about new life forms or new languages to understand that any extinction, even one in which human over-consumption or exploitation are not implicated, represents a loss of a completely different order from the death of an individual. If we are beholden as poets to mourn ordinary death and to celebrate the wonder and beauty of human love and life, aren’t we all the more obligated to respond in some way to the horror of extinction, and to celebrate non-human life in all its strangeness and beauty?

It seems to me that as beneficiaries of an unsustainable, wasteful and destructive consumer economy, we are engaged in a Faustian bargain: our physical comfort, convenience, and stimulation in exchange for… well, eternal damnation of a sort, yes. Purely as a thought experiment, ask yourself which of the following would you be willing to consign to oblivion in order to continue at your current standard of living:

These aren’t all threatened or endangered species, just random cool creatures, each deserving at least an epic in its honor, and emblematic of the staggering diversity of life on Earth.

I’m not saying we don’t need more poems about love. (Though come to think of it…) I am simply proposing that we poets stop our silly wars about style and theory and start writing elegies, psalms, odes and lamentations for each and every species and unique community on this endangered earth. Imagine a leaderless, global collaboration of poets resulting in a multilingual mega-anthology bigger than the Mahabharata, the Talmud, and the Buddhist Tripitaka combined…

35 Comments


  1. O.K., I guess I omitted to explain how writing poems would help save anything. I don’t think it would, actually, and moreover I think it would be arrogant and deleterious to the poetry to approach it with that kind of intention. The reality is that any one of these creatures could save us. But this isn’t about redemption, either; it’s about the joy of discovery and the reinvention of awe.


    • I dunno. Here’s Bly from the introduction to his Sixties-era poetry in Selected Poems:

      Reciting political poems at Vietnam gatherings, I experienced for the first time in my life the power of spoken or oral poetry. A briefly lasting community springs to life in front of the voice, like a flower opening — it can be a community either of excitement or of feeling. The community flowers when the poem is spoken in the ancient way — that is, with full sound, with conviction, and with the knowledge that the emotions are not private to the speaker.

      One poet’s experience, anyway. It would be cool to see how poetry might lead in an electronic era that, despite some promising developments, still tends to discourage “communities springing to life in front of a voice.”


      • Wow. Bly says it so eloquently, I really want to believe that, too.


  2. I usually just fall silent when I see the ruined forests here. I don’t have any words for it. As you say, it’s beyond our scale: maybe that’s the problem. We’re like a five year old who’s killed her baby brother, without really meaning to, and is waiting for her parents to come home and bring him back to life. If we could understand and face what we’ve done, we wouldn’t have done it.


    • That’s a very good — and chilling — analogy, Dale. And yeah, considering how ancient some of the trees are in your old-growth forests out there, clearcutting does seem like an especially criminal act.

      • David Harmon

        Amen. Dale, be warned: I may swipe that phrase sometime!


  3. Perhaps poetry, like all language, is not solution but rather the underlying problem.

    Consider human furlessness. Without hackles to raise, we must brandish words. We etch camouflage with tattoo needles, and signal health with lipstick. Our sad-sack revenge: a contemptuous devaluation of the wordless.

    If only we had retained fur, we might properly perceive ourselves as just another elaboration on life, and to treasure the full exquisite range of other modes. Even if they cannot sweat as copiously.

    Pity that we’re out of track. The new combination of human inactivity and plummeting use of language might eventually have spelled a return to fur, and thus empathy.

    Please blame Nina Jablonski, and her current Scientific American article on naked humans, for this entire comment.


    • That sounds like a very interesting article, but I tend to be cautious about simple explanations for humanity’s malaise that rely on just one or two characteristics.


  4. I agree entirely, there is too much arid pointless but beautifully crafted poetry out there.

    Another thing that bothers me is that the current mainstreaming of environmental issues (and I’ve probably said this here before) is that its all about finding ways we can generate more fuel for our overconsuming lives and biodiversity often gets stamped on in the process (biofuel plantations replacing rainforest, peat bogs becoming industrial sized windfarms).

    There’s also an issue in that much of the audience have their fingers in their ears and their eyes glazed over. Which relates to Dale’s comment – the issue is just too big for us to feel we can do anything about.


    • Yes, I know from past discussions that we agree about the environmental movement, which is essentially splintering now between the anthropocentric and biocentric types. Also, people love apocalyptic thinking, and global warming fits the bill much better than an extinction crisis with multiple causes, only one of which is anthropogenic climate change.


  5. Dave, I can see that this one is going to generate a lot of thought-provoking comment. And I can see too that I’m going to have to limit my time at the laptop this morning because your list of links is a bestiary as fantastic as any dreamed up by a medieval illuminator and could keep me seriously preoccupied for days! (I have always, ALWAYS wanted to illustrate a bestiary.)

    It’s not only the natural world in all its rich diversity that we have the capacity to stomp into oblivion. A friend whose short stories I would dearly love to see gathered into a single edition, has just told me there’s no chance of that because publishers maintain there’s no call for short stories. (!!!!!) I’m sitting here agog in disbelief. It seems that whenever evolution/human endeavour refines something to a pitch of perfection, whether it’s a glass frog or the art of short-story writing, some accountant is eventually going to be sitting in judgement saying, “How much exactly is anyone going to be willing to pay for this?” And if the answer is “Well, you just can’t judge it in those terms.”, the accountant smirks unpleasantly, raises a would-be-ironic eyebrow and declares pointedly “Well then I rest my case.” Heaven help us, we’ve turned what survives and what gets swept aside into a game show, and it shames us all.

    That’s me done. Must rush to the studio, But your ‘bestiary’ is going to be my reading this evening, and I’m very excited about it too. A vegetarian spider sounds like just my kind of arachnid!!!


    • Clive, yes to a bestiary!

      I didn’t want to turn this into a Jeremiad against our economic system in general (in part because I am not at all qualified to write such a thing), but you’re right: the same forces are behind the destruction of the planet and the attrition of artistic, intellectual and spiritual culture, I think.


  6. Oh, I do like a blog post that really says something! I feel most invigorated.
    Thanks.
    x

  7. sarah b

    Dave – why not devote a quartsiluni to this topic? Be depressing as all hell!


    • It did cross my mind after I posted. But we’re actually trying to move away from issues that are as long as the Mahabharata, the Talmud, and the Tripitaka combined.


  8. I think Sarah is spot on, Dave.

    And this post is a bit serendipitous for me. I have been trying to write a poem about red-legged frogs (yesterday, in fact) — yet it was going off in the direction of a rant rather than doing what I hoped to do. (It’s hard not to rant about some things. What separates art from rant?)

    Thanks for the challenge. And encouragement, of a sort. One could make this a life’s work. Unfortunately.

    I do hope Clive does a bestiary, they are compelling.


    • Well, I’m glad it came at an opportune time for you — and I look forward to reading that poem!


  9. Maybe we’ve got our fall theme, Dave: you ‘n me, the Apocalypse Twins!

    I think you’re at your best when talking about this kind of stuff. It’s an excellent post. For myself, I’m not so sure that “if we really knew what we were doing we wouldn’t do it.” I think we (they?) do know, and don’t care; we’ve become the masters of our world, or so we still think. Look at the contempt heaped upon the poor snail darter – and that’s just one example.

    What Clive said about his friend’s short stories is exactly where I am, too. When we get to a point where all our decisions are based on economic benefit, we’ve lost everything.


    • Well, as I tried to say in my first comment, writing about, or in awareness of, the threat of extinction shouldn’t be viewed in a purely utilitarian way — “this will help save the planet” — in part because ideology and poetry don’t always mix too well, and in part becasue we need to get away from that kind of arrogance and utilitarianism. I do believe that art and literature can do something to reawaken a sense of primordial awe/wonder, though. I have to believe it.


  10. I love the multilingual mega anthology idea and, like some of your other commenters, I immediately thought about a qarrtsiluni issue on the subject.

    You’re right about the need for poetry that captures and attempts to spread that sense of awe and wonder for what’s left of the wild world around us and in fact, it’s been the subject that most excites me as a writer and has been the source of my almost yearlong obsession with writing poems about vultures and grackles.

    Beyond the awe and wonder, though, I agree that extinction needs to be addresed. I’ve been working on a few poems about extinction. We’ll see I can finish any. Like Deb, I’m hesitant about wandering into rant.

    I’m going to have to click through to learn about these plants and animals you’ve listed. The only one I’m familiar with is the Roseate Spoonbill, which I saw for the first time last summer.

    Thanks for this post and also for including my hummingbird poem in the smorgasblog.


    • Well, to me, the awe and wonder are a way of addressing extinction — but so too are the poems of Paul Celan or Howie Good. I’m not just talking about “nature poetry” here, though my thought-experiment might’ve led people to think so. I can’t separate genocide from ecocide in my thinking. The stem from the same mind-set.


  11. Dave,

    Praise for all that estranges us from ourselves, enlarging what we are and clarifying what we cannot be and often delighting… measuring the loss that might be. I like that.

  12. Ms. Linda

    And among the amazing is the Groler bear…the half polar bear half grizzly bear (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grizzly%E2%80%93polar_bear_hybrid) …proving that in spite of Noah Wyle’s plea to send money to save the polar bears (I guess he’s going to buy them some ice???) they seem to have figured out survival just fine on their own.

    Now I gotta just “find me a man” who I can love to life! (verses love to death). Happy Valentines Day!


    • Interesting, but keep in mind that the survival of a species means much more than the prepetuation of its genes in some form. Grizzlies and polar bears are indeed very closely related, but the latter has a number of unique characteristics and adaptations that will be lost if/when its habitat is destroyed by global warming, and without this top carnivore, the entire Arctic ecosystem will be diminished.

      • Ms. Linda

        No argument there…but such is the way of the earth. Ask a pterodactyl and the alligator. The Arctic ecosystem is diminishing, hence the survival cycle we now see in place.

        I am too pessimist (at least tonight) to believe that the politician in power will make the changes necessary to reverse this trend, or that we, the people, will rise together and demand such an action.

        Can it, indeed, be reversed at this point?

        In the mean time…here is my un-requested contribution…

        The Haploid

        Crawl and chew and build a maze,
        Plant it deep with fungal haze.
        Line our young in cells so tight,
        The babies grow in dark to height.
        Ambrosia for the larva. GOOD!
        Chew, and chew and chew this wood.
        Carry spores here on our feet.
        And spread it down the tube to eat
        Tuck the babies, dark inside
        Done my work …
        ……………….and forests die.


        • Thanks for the light verse — I love comments like that. I also like “I am too pessimist (at least tonight).” Pessimism can be hard to maintain, can’t it? It’s not a normal, healthy habit of mind, I don’t think, even thought it may be a necessary one. I don’t know if it’s too late or not, but I rather suspect it is.


  13. Great post.

    I think extinction, from a human perspective, is all about love and death. The death is obvious. The pain that too few feel is the love.

    • sarah b

      I’ve always felt slightly differently about extinction after studying geologic time (so that I could teach it to 7th graders) and reading that 99% (?) of all species that have been on earth are now extinct. The same way that death is an inevitable part of life… maybe extinction is an inevitable part of a species.


      • It is, but this is only the sixth great extinction event in the history of life on earth… and it’s now beginning to appear, from more comprehensive analyses of the fossil record, that the biosphere can take up to 10 million years to recover from such an event in terms of regaining the complexity, resiliancy, and multiplicity of lifeforms it had before the mass extinction. That’s such a long span of time in human terms, it might as well be forever.


  14. your list was a poem in itself, dave

    thanks for the rain of strangeness and beauty ~ kas


    • In the past I would’ve focused more on making the list into a poem; this time I wanted to draw more attention to each example as a potential starting-point for something new. Still, I think every natural thing shines with strangeness and beauty when seen with open eyes. The world itself is a poem.

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