COP26: listen to science? Yes, and also in the arts

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“Listen to the science! Sir David Attenborough said aboard the British Antarctic Survey ship on October 28, 2021. Alan Riach said: “Yes, and LISTEN TO THE ARTS! “

Will COP26 be nothing more than an empty gathering of hyper-bloated politicians shutting down Glasgow and sidelining Scotland for a series of futile pontifications and bad faith promises destined to be broken ?

I have another question to ask: “How can poetry and the arts be of immediate and practical help in the crisis of ecology and climate change?” This is the first of two essays providing the answer. Perhaps this seems like a particularly trivial question, or so frivolous as to be irrelevant, but there is an answer. Or rather, more than one answer.

Poetry and ecology are intertwined realities, requiring an exercise of the imagination beyond the control of the political interests of any government. But governments that deny them end all life.

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The arts, and poetry in particular, give us the ability to approach the human with what John Berger, in an essay called A Story for Aesop, calls “the address of the landscape”. It is the sense of the place experienced not only in its daily visualization but also in the way in which a particular environment addresses its inhabitants, its residents, the people who live there and with it, in its economic, physical and social relations. , through and through the generations. .

It always has immediate application. Poetry and the arts are essential there. As the American environmental activist and writer Edward Abbey puts it: “We stand up for what we are fighting for! Abbey was committed to direct action but in his writing there remains an inspiration. And inspiration in poetry and the arts has effects that are both deeper and more lasting than almost any politician.

Poetry has a unique ability to offer a kind of understanding, approach, sight and understanding of what is staring us in the face, a way of thinking about it, a method to help us see in it and beyond.

This is evident in how poetry has changed our understanding of the world around us over time. In his book Lyric Powers (2008), Robert Von Hallberg writes: “Poetry is persistent: it preserves the beliefs but also the wishes, apprehensions and doubts of poets and their cultures.

He quotes Wallace Stevens: “Poetry is the sum of its attributes” and thus abridges the whole idea of ​​tradition: “Individual poets choose their predecessors and shape their art accordingly.

These terms indicate the method, the practice of the poet, the aesthetic device of the poem, its character as an autonomous verbal artefact, but also, crucially, how these two identities, poet and poem,

relate to and mediate between the selected past and the world as reality, all around us. Our past, present and future: all of which depend entirely on the land on which we tread.

Von Hallberg identifies two main modes of poetry, the orphic and the rhetoric, or we could say the lyrical and the discursive. The distinction is not absolute. Nothing in the arts ever is. Absolute safety categories like locked doors can be temporarily useful on a sinking ship, but even then their value depends on the outcome: slower sinking and abandonment or keeping the ship afloat by sealing the parts so badly flooded.

But the distinction is useful. Orphic quality and discursive or rhetorical quality are different ways of working in art. As for the “Orphic” quality: authority “comes from the root of” increase “: with what does poetry increase ordinary language? If there is an answer, it’s the music.

POETRY, like almost all the arts, tackles things after they have happened, it brings out thoughts and feelings that we might not have had, or had time to express, at the time of certain experiences that occur, and to make a new one, their experience in the present.

Von Hallberg again: “Poets are far from power, and this strengthens their authority. What they wield is not power but authority. This is what Shelley meant when he called poets the “unrecognized lawmakers” of the world.

But it depends on those of us can read and recognize the authority and recognize its law. Using this ability, not only do we respond and understand, we can also transmit and communicate

such an understanding. It is the exercise of authority, communication and education, and it changes assumptions.

This is in part what Wordsworth means when he speaks of poetry as an emotion collected in tranquility. This is in part what the French expression “the staircase spirit” means, an expression which does not translate exactly but whose meaning is quite clear.

Would you say “the spirit of the stairs”? Or, “the escalator principle”? Or, “things look different from above” (as Clint Eastwood puts it in A Fistful of Dollars)? Or in German, “Treppenwitz” (literally “Staircase wit”)? It means “the cue that you only think of after the psychological moment has passed”. Or in office politics: “What I should have said when …”

Poetry takes this common idea and applies it to the world with the fullest sophistication of language and a deep understanding of justice. Joseph Conrad puts it this way: “Art itself can be defined as a resolute attempt to do the highest justice to the visible universe. It is reparation, in all its forms. And if it draws on the past in a retrospective sense, it opens up to the future with the imperative of just command.

Poetry and all the arts demand this participation, and it can be hard work, which is another reason why many people shy away from them and are so easily deceived into denigrating their meaning.

But if there is any hope for the planet, this is where it comes from.

FIONA Stafford, in her book Local Attachments (2010), says: “The vital importance of local attachments to art derives from the need for the truth to have a solid foundation.” Poetry needs “local attachments” because truth needs real foundations on which to build, fly and come back.

These foundations and the relationships between literary truths that relate directly to the flora of the world throughout history are beautifully explored and illustrated in Stafford’s two remarkable books, The Long, Long Life of Trees (2016) and The Brief Life of Flowers (2018).

READ MORE: Humanity faces “difficult choice”, UN chief warns at COP26 opening

At the end of the opening essay of this last volume, Stafford dedicates his book to “generations of men and women who have dedicated their lives to flowers: planters and breeders, collectors and designers, florists. and the foresters, artists and writers who improved the lives of foreigners ”.

She explains that it was written “to celebrate flowers, both wild and cultivated, whose delicate shapes are still powerful enough to stop us in our tracks and amaze us”.

This dedication is exemplary. Living things, flowers, trees, all the life of creatures – and therefore the earth itself, is “celebrated” in the most intense and precise way and with such power that can stop us both due of their own presence – wild or cultivated – and also by the artists and writers who act as intermediaries between them and the “foreigners”.

By such interconnections, we are driven to this feeling of “wonder”. It is much more than accepting the idea of ​​”landscape” or the earth and its flora and fauna as a scenic backdrop. It is to deepen and secure our understanding, our pleasures and our responsibilities. And this step is just the start.


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