The Rise of Eco-Poetry
By Mary Karayel and Hayley Cadel
With COP26 ongoing in Glasgow, the focus this week is on eco-poetry, an art form that is both environmental and environmentalist, and that is interested in the natural world rather than centred on the human. Poets have drawn widely on the natural world to metaphorically reflect human emotions and experiences, but the eco-poem is fundamentally interested in environmental concerns. While eco-poetry differs from nature poetry, the former does, to some extent, expand nature poetry whilst importantly highlighting the environmental crisis to urge its readers to take action.
Historically, Romanticism was the movement concerned with the natural world. However, while the interest then was how nature related to human experience, the interest now lies in tackling environmental concerns. Significantly, eco-poetry is not just poetry about nature; it is poetry that aims to elicit an emotive response from its readers which will inspire them to be more environmentally conscious.
We think it is also interesting to consider how eco-poetry can operate off the page. Simon Armitage’s ‘In Praise of Air,’ displayed for a year at the University of Sheffield, took up an entire wall and was printed on an air-purifying canvas to cut local pollution, an incentive which could go further and transform billboard and outdoor advertising. Arguably, in this instance, poetry can become part of the environment to enhance a location.
Awards for Eco-Poetry
Acclaim for eco-poetry has reached new heights in recent years through the emergence of awards for poems with environmental themes. The Ginkgo Prize, first awarded in 2015 and relaunched in 2018 in affiliation with the Poetry School, recognises poets for their eco-poetry globally. The award is very distinctive because it offers winners writing residencies, monetary prizes and runs a programme to support the development of eco-poetry. In 2020, the Ginkgo Prize ran free virtual workshops for writers wanting to find out more about the animacy of fossils, shadowed landscapes and weather, to name just a few areas covered in Zoom workshops with environmental poets such as Maya Chowdhry and Maria Sledmere. The Ginkgo Prize rewards individual poems that are then collated into an Anthology for readers to download. Whilst the 2021 anthology has yet to be released, the 2020 one is available on their website and contains inspiring poems exploring extinction, the man-made destruction of the planet, as well as a close examination of the environmental world of molluscs and birds. There is something for everybody who is environmentally conscious in this anthology and could provide you with some inspiration to write your own eco-poetry. Our favourite poem from this collection is ‘What Survives of Us’ by Emily Grove, and we implore you to check it out!
Similarly, Simon Armitage set up the Laurel Prize for eco-poetry last year to award the best collection of environmental, eco-poetry or nature poetry. Armitage, who became Poet Laureate in 2019, said he created the Prize to “highlight the climate crisis and raise awareness of the challenges and potential solutions at this critical point in our planet’s life” by drawing together the voices of eco-poets from across the world. Announced just last month, Seán Hewitt won the First Prize with his debut collection, Tongues of Fire. Ash Davida Jane came second with How to Live with Mammals, and Sean Borodale’s Inmates was awarded the Third Prize. These are the perfect collections to start exploring eco-poetry in more depth. Other notable recommendations from the longlist are Will Burns’ Country Music, which was deemed the “Best First Collection looking at humanity’s ‘bad choices piling up like debts,’” and Anja Konig’s Animal Experiments. We recommend taking a look at the full longlist for yourselves for all things eco-poetry.
Poetry and the Climate Crisis
Eco-poetry thus has plenty to say on the subject of the environment and plenty we need to hear to make a difference. As people become more conscious of their impact on the planet and concerned about sustainability, we predict that eco-poetry will not only be more widely read, but also more widely written. However, while it has the power to engage, it also risks adopting a somewhat sanctimonious and moralistic tone. But if the power of poetry is its ability to make its reader ‘feel,’ then eco-poets, by doing more than just educating readers, have the potential to make readers feel the urgency. As more people become concerned with the environment, we predict that more people will explore the climate crisis through poetry.