The Politics of 'Nature' Poetry
by Nicole Jashpara
In the past fifteen years or so, there has been an outpouring of ‘new nature writing’. Books such as Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk (2014) and Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways (2012) have popularised the genre, traversing different landscapes to explore personal, cultural and scientific relations with the environment. There has also been an increased awareness that we are in a climate and ecological crisis, rooted in colonial, capitalist histories of oppression, dispossession and extraction. Although there has been significant discussion in the media on the role of prose ‘nature writing’ when it comes to environmental thought and climate activism, there has been little attention paid to nature/eco-poetry. How can poetry engage with the politics and crises of ‘nature’? Does it? And what political and literary traditions is modern nature poetry working within, or against?
In Britain, most people’s first experience of ‘nature poetry’ is the Romantic poets, at school. The term brings to mind poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats, and poems like ‘Daffodils’. In such poems, the speakers are often in solitude (‘lonely as a cloud’), and human presence in the landscape is reduced to a solipsistic lyric ‘I’ who revels in nature’s beauty and power: Wordsworth rhapsodises about ‘ye presences of Nature’ in The Prelude, and compares the daffodils’ ‘sprightly dance’ to ‘the stars that shine/ And twinkle on the milky way’. The Romantic ‘Nature’ is often an imaginative escape, a place that the poet might return to in their ‘inward eye’ so that their ‘heart with pleasure fills’.
Admittedly I am generalising somewhat, but in this Romantic tradition – or at least in the way it’s perceived – humans and nature tend to exist in a kind of binary opposition. ‘Nature’ (capitalised and personified) is often a blissful escape from civilisation, filled with green ‘vales and hills’. In Britain, William Blake’s poetry has been appropriated in the hymn ‘Jerusalem’, a positive anthem for England, which idealises ‘England’s pleasant pastures’ in contrast to the ‘dark Satanic Mills’ of industrialisation and modernity. The pastoral has become a nationalistic imaginary space, occupied in the traditions of lyric poetry by a fairly homogenous group of speakers. They tend to be white, and they tend to be male, and so – as Bhanu Kapil and Sandeep Parmar write – the lyric ‘I’ has a comfortable ‘coded whiteness’, implicitly excluding other voices. What does this do to our ideas of who belongs in ‘nature’? In a time when Natural England has posited that only one percent of visitors to national parks are from BAME backgrounds, it is increasingly apparent that different people and bodies do not experience ‘nature’ in the same way. We have somehow gotten to a point where Black and Brown bodies are excluded from natural spaces, both in real terms and in the often-fascistic cultural imaginary.
When we speak of ‘nature’ as ‘that beautiful thing over there’, we falsify it: to speak of ‘nature’ or the ‘pastoral’ as separate to ‘civilisation’ and therefore free from politics, ownership or capital is to invent a space that does not exist. To imagine a singular ‘Nature’ as a constant, unified entity is also to assume a stability and universality that does not exist. Many poets now opt for the word ‘ecology’ over ‘nature’ (‘eco-poetry’ rather than ‘nature poetry’) because, I think, of its emphasis on interconnectedness: the term recognises that the myth that ‘humans’ and ‘Nature’ are separate is not only false, but dangerous. As animals, humans are inherent to the ‘natural’ world, and we must recognise our place within it in order to better see how our own systems of power and activity feed into and shape different ecologies. As Robert Macfarlane has written on ‘new nature writing’:
‘The best of the recent writing is ethically alert, theoretically literate and wary of the seductions and corruptions of the pastoral. It is sensitive to the dark histories of landscape and to the structures of ownership and capital that organise – though do not wholly produce – our relations with the natural world’
How, then, to enact that? I want to begin by looking at two, fairly famous, modern, white ‘nature’ poets, Alice Oswald and Kathleen Jamie. As the Oxford Professor of Poetry and winner of several prestigious poetry awards (including the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem and the T.S. Eliot Prize), Oswald has been – perhaps more than any other British ‘nature’ poet – welcomed by Britain’s elite institutions. Her poems are beautiful, often evoking moments of light or life in ecological cycles; Falling Awake (2016) opens with ‘the story of the falling rain/ that rises to the light and falls again’. Oswald does not refer to ‘nature’ as a stable category, and experiences of the natural world are often characterised by uncertainty; in ‘A Rushed Account of the Dew’, the ‘spell of daylight’ is an image constantly broken and disrupted, until the poem ends with the seemingly unfinished, disconnected thought ‘only to cancel’. Awareness of the natural world being in crisis is, however, negligible; in ‘Dunt’, the river is ‘dried-up’ and ‘very endangered’, but elsewhere there is little sense of ecological destruction. Equally absent are ideas of the politics of ownership, exclusion and whiteness that characterise both experiences of and literature around the natural world. That is not to say that all writing about ‘nature’ must always speak of crisis and politics; to argue that would be to reduce poetry to a crude political instrument. But to be able to exist in nature in a way that allows you to avoid those issues, and to be able to write of nature without alluding to them, is political in itself.
By comparison, Kathleen Jamie – who explicitly disassociates herself from Romantic traditions of nature writing – opens her collection The Tree House (2004) with a personified, speaking ‘Wishing Tree’, who stands ‘neither in the wilderness/ nor fairyland/ but in the fold/ of a green hill’, and draws into its ‘slow wood/ fleur-de-lys, the enthroned Britannia’. In her infamous essay on Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places (2007), Jamie writes about the inherent theatricality of ‘wild’ spaces: they do not exist, as all land is owned, managed or conserved in some way. By establishing that this tree exists neither in ‘wilderness’ nor ‘fairyland’, she equates the two spaces; much more simply, without the glossy language of romanticisation, this tree is in ‘a green hill’. Her reference to the ‘enthroned Britannia’ is a nod to the politicisation of such places, and the inherent interconnectedness between human systems of meaning and the exterior, tangible world. Her poetry is also often in Scots; rather than the traditional English voice of nature poetry, she fills her landscapes with speakers we do not often hear. Perhaps more so than Oswald’s poetry, Jamie’s writing is more actively engaged with the politics of land, and with the project of disrupting – or disregarding – the harmful pastoral ideal.
But what does it look like when poets of different national and racial identities – existing outside the white British canon – explore and push the boundaries of what we consider to be the ‘natural world’? In Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation (2016), identity and place are fluid and political, moving across borders and disrupting national narratives. ‘Fire & Darkness: And Also / No Join / Like’ opens with a quotation from John Donne, initially – or so it seems – situating the poem within a Western literary tradition. The speaker – who, through the epigraph, a reader may have assumed to be white and British – speaks of the ‘south of this country’ and the strangeness of ‘celebrations they hold in the dark’ for a man who practised a ‘different, competing version of the national religion’ (Guy Fawkes). Such distancing from England and its traditions shows how there is otherwise an assumed national and racial identity to the lyric ‘I’, and to the reader. Urban landscapes are as interesting and ecological as green ones; a ‘northern street’ soon ‘branches, like … water coursing round an outcrop; like – part of the net of a tree’. Images of water and landscape intermingle with ‘a hat … abandoned by a tidy drunk’, and a ‘sooty church, now in use as a nightclub’; ‘nature’ is not green and wild, but peopled and urban. In ‘Slaughterer’, the eponymous speaker of the poem describes how ‘the cattle wept’ when his grandfather died; ‘they are not like cattle here. They live among the household and on the hills, which are very green, and they eat good food, the same food as the household, cut-up pieces of leftover chapatti’. Sensing the literary, Western reader’s ignorance, the slaughterer addresses them directly: ‘You do not get stories like that in books. I am telling you because you only have things to read’. The power dynamics of Western literary traditions – and of place and nature – are made apparent through their disruption.
As Jessica J. Lee has written, the past decade or so has also been exciting in expanding who it is that we take for a nature writer. The Willowherb Review, edited by Lee, publishes nature writing by writers of colour, and the writing often considers themes of migration and displacement, travelling through different cultures and languages. Crucially, it departs from the centring of whiteness implicit to much of the most famous nature writing. The poet Pratyusha, published in Willowherb, recently released the pamphlet bulbul calling (2020); as an eco-poet, Pratyusha’s forms are multilingual and fragmentary, reflecting her Indo-Swiss diasporic identity. Tamil and Hindi, likely unreadable to the white, British reader, flit in and out of the poetry, often without glosses; ‘My grandmother is puzzled by the stories I choose to fixate on in the महाभारतम्’, she writes in ‘(a)version’, before launching into a consideration of the river Ganges that spans from Hindu mythology to present ecological destruction. The ecologies depicted cross countries, cultures and languages, reflecting a series of relationships with the ‘natural world’ that I – as a Western reader steeped in the literary canon – am not accustomed to seeing.
Poetry is not, and should not be, didactic. To view it as a means to an end – i.e. as an instrument for change – is to both offensively disregard everything else that is of value in poetry, and to misread how political change comes about. Changing the contours of our collective imagination is a much subtler, more gradual process. But at its best, ‘nature poetry’ or ‘eco-poetry’ disrupts, challenges and extends our preconceived ideas about ‘nature’, which are inherently political and mythologised anyway. I read a review of Oswald’s poetry online that says that ‘by simply using poetry as a motif Oswald is promoting the natural world … Any promotion of the natural through creative forms like poetry is its own form of activism’. But to say so is to presume that ‘the natural world’ is a constant, a place that is green, neutral and depoliticised. In white, Western traditions, a failure to properly interrogate what it is we mean by ‘nature’ is a perpetuation of the colonial, capitalist and nationalistic ideas of ‘nature’ in the British cultural imagination.