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Book Review: The New Poetics of Climate Change

Beci Carver, University of Exeter

Matthew Griffiths, The New Poetics of Climate Change: Modernist Aesthetics for a Warming World (London: Bloomsbury, 2017)

Imagine a version of William Wordsworth’s ‘The Solitary Reaper’ in which the air is ablaze, like an Australian sky, with bushfire light. The singer is stooped over to reap, but there is no crop: she is ghostwalking through an old routine. She sounds like a bird – a nightingale or cuckoo – but has never heard birdsong. She seems to be mourning something, but she could be mourning everything. The pastoral mode has always been characterised by pre-emptive elegy, as if the natural phenomena it described were better understood in their absence. But there is something viscerally different about a pastoral poem that spells out the environmental crisis it fears. Once, when Alice Oswald read out ‘Dunt: A Poem for a Dried-up River’, ‘someone had an asthma attack because she forgot to breathe’.

            How do we write about nature now? What does a crisis-era poetry of the natural world look like? What are its peculiar urgencies and sadnesses and ambitions? In his important book, The New Poetics of Climate Change: Modernist Aesthetics for a Warming World, Matthew Griffiths asks these questions of modernist and late-modernist poems ranging from the early twentieth century to the present.

            Although Griffiths begins his story of eco-modernism in the 1910s and 1920s, he is more at home in the second half of the twentieth century than in the first. It is hard (though tempting) to believe that when Eliot’s Prufrock asks: ‘Do I dare/Disturb the universe? […] Do I dare to eat a peach?’ he is anxious about the global impact of peach-eating, or that when Wallace Stevens hears ‘misery in the sound of the wind’ in ‘The Snow Man’ he is tuning into the shriek of a dying planet. On the other hand, Griffiths’s reading of Basil Bunting’s late-modernist poem, Brigflatts, as a critique of the Romantic, human-centric pastoral is wholly convincing, while Griffiths’s emphasis on the era ‘prior to glacial melt’ in David Jones’s Anathemata does much to illuminate that poem’s meaning.

Griffiths explains his decision to encompass early-twentieth-century modernism in his monograph with the broad claim that ‘no feature of our biological or cultural existence can be isolated from climate change, no text can be ringfenced from being read in relation to it’ (p. 125). However, regardless of how we might feel about the importance of extending environmentalist debate, it is simply a historical inevitability that poems written later in modernity’s span are more likely to worry about the fragility of the Earth. Environmentalist concerns have long been vulnerable to displacement by crises that have seemed (however wrongly) more pressing, and I would venture that the crises that vibrate through the work of the poets Griffiths includes in his (all-male) selection of early modernists are more likely to relate to masculinity or sexuality, or to the rise of fascism or the rise of finance capitalism. 

            Griffiths’s sixth chapter, about late-twentieth and twenty-first-century poetry, is by far his most successful. Here, he is able to map a solid historical relation between the emergence of ‘climate change as a distinctive topic’ in politics and popular culture and its explicit permeation through late-modernist poetry (p. 154). There are some wonderfully suggestive moments of literary analysis in the first half of this chapter, which moves with remarkable concision and wit through a spectrum of texts. In his reading of Sean Borodale’s poem of 2013 ‘Scratching for Metaphor’, Griffiths presents poetic language as a fossil fuel, capable at once of storing energy and inflicting toxic damage; and in his quick summary of David Sergeant’s ‘A Language of Change’, he distills the argument of the poem into a dazzling riddle: ‘[Sergeant] asks confidently – and thus paradoxically with considerable doubt – what it means to write a love poem at the end of the world.’ (p. 159)

            The main focus of Griffiths’s sixth chapter is Jorie Graham’s seminal poetry collection of 2008, Sea Change, a work that consciously riffs on Eliot’s The Waste Land. The most vivid of Graham’s debts to Eliot is perhaps her spin on his poem’s enigmatic promise: ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’:


In Hell they empty your hands of sand, they tell you to refill them with dust and try

                                                to hold in mind the North Atlantic Deep Water

                                                which also contains

            contributions from the Labrador Sea and entrainment of other water masses, try to hold a

                                                complete collapse, in the North Atlantic Drift, in the

                                                thermohaline circulation[1]

As Griffiths points out, Graham’s subject in these lines is the effort to ‘comprehend the phenomena of our climate.’ (p. 167) Eliot never shows us, and never shows us what he means by, ‘fear’, so Graham fills the gap with her own environmentalist fear, which she defines in quantitative (though still speculative) terms as an attempt to imagine the scale and crisis level of the seawater’s warmth. To ‘try/to hold in mind’ the phenomenon of global warming is an act of grasping dust, in which the particles keep giving way to pressure: ‘try to hold a complete collapse.’

            Griffiths’s beautifully written and clever book is full of provocations to think harder about the climate. He invites us to wonder what it would be like to see nature as a global phenomenon: to behold the North Atlantic and think of ‘thermohaline circulation’, or to eat a peach and think of the fuel costs of its transportation. He prompts us to ask whether an interest in nature’s detail is compatible with the ultimately abstract view of an observer who can’t forget the bigger picture. Can we, anymore, achieve the lush nostalgia of Wordsworth’s pastoral? And should we try? Furthermore, Griffiths is right to start the clock of his ‘poetics of climate change’ at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the invention of the motorcar, the plane, the electricity pylon, and plastic, along with the lifestyles that surround them, launched our current narrative of decline. The effects of climate abuse began to be visible then, as we know. Yet perhaps the most realistic ecocritical story we can tell about early modernism is that modernist writers did not speak up. Their legacy is not one of attention to the risk of species death, though we might wish it was.

One of Griffiths’s cast of late modernists, Borodale, writes in the preface to his Bee Journal of 2016, that he composed his sequence of poems about beekeeping ‘not far from the factory fields of agricultural manifacture in North Somerset’, and that the words he scribbled in his sticky, wax-encrusted notebook ‘accumulated as a counterspirit to everything I read about gaiacide: of nature as the site of crisis.’[2] It may seem to us now that we no longer have the luxury of not seeing ‘nature as [a] site of crisis’, but it remains worth mustering a ‘counterspirit’ to confront both the extremes of environmentalist pessimism and the continued problem of climate change denial. Griffiths helps us understand how late modernism may become our laboratory for imagining a more fraught planet.


[1] Jorie Graham, ‘Positive Feedback Loop’, Sea Change (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2008), p. 42.

[2] Sean Borodale, Bee Journal (London: Vintage, 2016), p. xiv.


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