September 2017

Why Poetry? Why Now?


Anne Haven McDonnell


As we spin and hurl in an age of ecological collapse, staggering injustice and political mendacity and absurdity, why turn to poetry? Even as I write this, I see the training of my mind to categorize and justify, to argue one thing at the expense of another. But poetry, to me, is about blowing open this kind of thinking to experience, to a different kind of knowing, and to penetrate to a kind of feeling and experience that resists this kind of categorization. We are trained to value what is “measurable,” and yet the most important experiences of our lives—love, death, grief, wonder—are beyond measure and explanation. How do we measure moments of encounter: hearing a humpack’s scraping exhale reverberate over the water, seeing the graceful, fluid trot of a coyote up a city sidewalk. How do we “measure” such things?


The contradictions and paradoxes that poetry can embody, the stirrings of the body that poetry can illicit, the cracks in the heart, the whoosh of recognition and insight, the leaps of strangeness and intuition, are ways of knowing that are marginalized and endangered in much of capitalist and industrial culture. I believe poetry is language that can evoke these ways of knowing like no other.


We need rational thought, now more than ever, to address climate change and move toward a decarbonized future. But we also need a more elemental, mysterious and penetrating language, one that speaks to our grief and our love of the world, as we witness and understand and resist a system that is killing what we love.


Poetry elevates and penetrates experience in associative, intuitive and emotional ways. For me, poetry is a practice of paying attention to the world and my own responses to it, inviting a language that both surprises me and leads me to deepen my own attention. The attention that poetry asks and embodies, both as a reader or a writer of poems, is slow and careful and intimate. In our frenzied and addicted-to-distraction times, this slowing down of attention is, in itself, a political and a sacred act.


As a faculty member at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), I’ve learned about the ways that oral, Indigenous languages grow out of the land and link cultural ways of knowing to a specific place. For me, poetry might be a language in English, in writing and in sound and song that brings us back in conversation with the land and the more-than-human world.


In thinking about writing this article, I realized how hungry I am to be in dialogue with other poets about poetry and climate change. So I asked some poets I admire to write some brief thoughts on the following questions, and here are their responses:



Why and how is poetry important or necessary in this time of climate change, climate injustice and ecological collapse? How and why do you turn to the language of poetry in this time?


Elizabeth Bradfield:

Poetry, more than other art forms, is for me a questioning art. There is so much didacticism, so much information and proscription in the news and in social media. Poetry does something stranger and deeper—it demonstrates the act of a singular voice asking why things matter and how they connect. It opens possibilities and, in doing so, emboldens me to see new ways of considering the world and its rich connections. I think we need to find new ways to consider and honor the world and our place in it so that we feel joy in action, not the passive quicksand of despair. 


I always turn to poetry. In times of joy, sorrow, confusion, rage, wonderment.  It is a language and, even more, a way of thinking that seeks surprise and connection—that seeks, even more, the surprise of connection, of what can be connected. Between self and world, mind and heart, sound and sense, us and them, now and then. It is an expression that forges things, builds paths, makes clear new possibilities. I need that heart-opening engagement to keep tearing down the protective walls that are so tempting to build and ultimately so destructively isolating.


Elizabeth Bradfield runs Broadsided Press, works as a naturalist, and teaches at Brandeis University. Her most recent poetry collection is Once Removed (Persea, 2015).


Joe Wilkins:

We know some things. We know (it is not about belief) what we are doing to the planet will result in grievous harm—first, to those most vulnerable; then, eventually, to all of us. Though poetry may seem beside the point, I would argue it is, right now—when too many obfuscate or hide behind convenient dishonesties—precisely the point. Donald Revell says, “Poetry is about trying to put a stop to people lying to themselves.” When we lie, we lie with language. Poetry makes language sharper, more exactly what it means. In this time of devastation, I turn to poetry to sharpen the blade of language. To wield that blade on the page. And in life.


Joe Wilkins is the author of The Mountains and the Fathers and When We Were Birds, winner of the Stafford/Hall Prize in Poetry from the Oregon Book Awards.


Derek Sheffield:

It is clear that conventional ways of knowing have been unable to adequately penetrate the media-dominated psyche of our culture. In spite of all the science and numbers, climate change remains nebulous and our response anemic. We can’t grasp the threat for the same reason we haven’t answered it: a massive failure of the collective imagination. About stories, one Apache elder said that they “go to work on you like arrows” and “make you live right” and “make you replace yourself.” Right now, we need nothing less than a sky shot full of poems and stories falling straight toward us. 


Derek Sheffield, whose book of poems is Through the Second Skin (Orchises, 2013), teaches poetry and ecological writing in Washington State.


Alison Hawthorne-Deming:

Poetry is the soulful record of how our inner lives are impacted by our moment in history. It is our witness, our song of praise and grief, our litany of gratitude and loss, our ritual in language of connection and empathy. We live in a time of radical loss—loss of places and species and privacy and now of the aspirational ideals of what it could mean to be American, despite our shortcomings. I turn to poetry–reading and writing it—to bear witness. And it’s important that the witnessing sees not only injustice and loss, but also the richness that remains of the natural world and stories of personal and cultural resilience. If we are living in a more biologically diverse time than those who follow us, then we are the record of this richness, diminishing though it may be. If we are living in a more culturally diverse time than those who preceded us, then we are the record of the difficulty and beauty of rising to that. And poetry’s capacity to cultivate radical empathy may be the most important tool we have now in a culture that is hardening into hatred, ridicule and mendacity. Poetry speaks truth to power and to powerlessness.


Alison Hawthorne Deming’s most recent poetry book is Stairway to Heaven (Penguin 2016). She is Regents’ Professor and Agnese Nelms Haury Chair in Environment & Social Justice at the University of Arizona.


Camille Dungy:

The poetry that matters most to me is poetry that manifests empathy. Reading poetry, and writing it also, I have learned to move outside the confines of my body into other bodies, other minds. This sort of expansive view of experience is one that leads to compassionate relationships. Good poetry doesn’t limit its empathic reach to the human world. The observations and connections made in good poetry remind us why the world beyond us is what matters. We need poetry that exercises such empathy. We need expansive compassionate imaginations in this moment of crisis and global destruction.


Camille Dungy is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Trophic Cascades. Her debut essay collection is Guidebook to Relative Strangers. She is also editor of anthologies including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African Nature Poetry.


James Aronhiota Stevens:

I feel poetry is necessary at this time because poetry is the succinct language of nature. The natural world does not pontificate or expostulate. It relies on the succinct notethe short warning bark of the prairie dog, the ticking chirp of the hummingbird, and the staccato drip of rain on leaves. Listening from my porch on an August night, it may sound like a continuous song, but listening carefully and separating each sound, it is each element’s brief message overlaid on other brief messagesthe apricot tree’s leaves occasionally speak in the wind, the crickets and their love of repetition, an occasional yip from a coyote.


I believe that time is of the essence in getting the message out there. Poetry speaks briefly but quickly. It gets to the point. In this day and age of immediate Google answers to our wonderment and all things at our fingertips, it is unlikely that most readers will spend much time with lengthy articles about the shrinking forests and whitening coral reefs, yet the speedy imagery of poetry can move readers to action in a quick and emotional manner.



James Thomas Stevens (Akwesasne Mohawk) is the author of eight books of poetry and is an associate professor at the IAIA.


Anne Haven McDonnell is an associate professor in English and Creative Writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and is currently enrolled in a low-residency MFA program at the University of Alaska. Her poetry can be found or is forthcoming in Orion Magazine, Nimrod Journal, Dark Mountain,, and other journals, as well as Nature and Environmental Writing: A Craft Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury Press: Nov. 2016).





“Emerging View”


written on the for sale signs scattered

and spreading up county road 8. Fall

in the conifers, a rusty glow sinks

then tags the mind, a thing

forgotten, the tug

of unraveling. The forest gives

itself up, a luminous

smear of exit –

aspens quilt a dizzy

yellow, and now this

blanket of dead lodgepole pine.

We can almost hear the strange

rhythm that brings those beetles,

thrums with weak music,

the fungus that follows their footsteps,

their marbled blue trails

polished like a map

on her kitchen floor. Still,

an old woman can rest here,

orchids in the boggy meadow,

chanterelles on the fire road,

a pine marten on the bird feeder

watches her watch him through

the window. Hungry moose furrow deep

trenches through snow banks

on the creek, which roars

into spring’s swarm. We look

through dead pine,

the snowy teeth of James peak

now visible, mountains

rise like the grieving that rolls

into this strange season,

wheeling towards us, nameless

on our animal tongues.

— Anne McDonnell



This poem was originally published in and was also included in Nature and Environmental Writing: A Craft Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury Press: Nov. 2016).




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