Earth Shattering: Ecopoems edited by Neil Astley

Context is all in a comprehensive new anthology of verse with an environmental bent. These poems make sense of a disappearing world...

Poetry and nature have always had a close relationship, but as humans have grown separate from their roots in the earth, a tragic gap has opened. The age of the pastoral, of simple expressions of the land and its life is long over. No poet who wants to speak of the natural world can do so without acknowledging its decline at the hands of humanity.

This is true from the work of John Clare, the English language’s finest-ever nature poet, lamenting enclosure and clearance in the first half of the 19th century –

'Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds                             Of field and meadow, large as garden grounds                                In little parcels little minds to please                                          With men and flocks imprisoned, ill at ease’

– to that of Peter Reading, today’s master-poet of ecological catastrophe, who skips expertly from the climacteric to the miniscule:

‘Yes, frail planet undergoing its sixth great extinction... Don’t forget the Slime Moulds...’.

Not everything here is explicitly ‘ecopoetry’, but when placed in context it takes on a new weight. Earth shattering is an ambitious book, drawing together work from different periods and cultures. It’s great to see the Sandinista revolutionary and liberation theologian Ernesto Cardenal in the same volume as ancient Chinese wilderness poetry and John Keats. The majority of poems are from Britain or the United States in the 20th century, however, testament to the growing realisation of our endangered and endangering lifestyle.

Sometimes the organisation of the book is confusing, with its separate thematic sections – ‘Unbalance of Nature’ or ‘The Great Web’, for example, the same poets often recurring in several sections – but this is a small concern when the content is of such consistently high standard. Many of these poems are sincerely trying to make some sense out of the terrible problems we face, or to elucidate what we stand to lose. As Native American Linda Hogan says:

‘Two world inside                                                                         a single vision’.

The most comprehensive anthology of its kind yet – if you like poetry and care about the environment this is essential reading.

Earth Shattering: Ecopoems Edited by Neil Astley  (Bloodaxe, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2008