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:
- the sea urchin that can see without the aid of an eye or even a brain?
- the milk-white beluga whale that twitters like a canary among the ice ?
- the glass frog whose transparent abdomen is like a museum case for the display of its most recent meal and its throbbing heart?
- the vegetarian spider Bagheera kiplingi that eats acacia trees and dodges ants?
- the pitcher plant Nepenthes attenboroughii from the Philippines, which preys on rats?
- the pebble toad of Venezuela that escapes predators by curling into a ball and rolling down mountainsides?
- tardigrades, commonly known as water bears, of the species Richtersius coronifer and Milnesium tardigradum, which survived for ten days in the vacuum of space?
- the flying snakes of Asia, which, without appendages of any kind, glide more accurately from tree to tree than any other gliding animal?
- the blue-throated hummingbird, whose heart can beat 1260 times a minute?
- the tiger moth Bertholdia trigona whose ultrasonic clicks can jam the sonar of predatory bats?
- the fungus-farming ambrosia beetles of the Xyleborini clade, whose males are haploid clones of their mothers and spend their lives fertilizing their enormous sisters?
- the roseate spoonbill?
- the one-celled ciliates, which can have up to 100 different genders, reproduce without sex and have sex without reproduction?
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…