On the Environment, Leisure, and Loathing


in Archive



What are poets doing to lessen their carbon footprint?
— Lisa G., St. Louis, Missouri

Dean Young’s “Whale Watch” captures the sentiment of many poets regarding the Earth’s environmental condition, no matter what our political persuasions:

…You may want to fall to your knees
and beg forgiveness without knowing precisely
for what. You may have a hole in your heart.
You may solve the equation but behind it
lurks another equation. You may never get
what you want and feel like you’re already a ghost
and a failed ghost at that, unable to walk through walls…

All poets can vary along on a continuum — from Green Peace supporters who have converted to veganism, to monster truck drivers who don’t recycle — but the current environmental crisis has, I believe, made all poets feel a little guilty every time we flush the toilet or throw away a Q-tip. Maybe we recycle and compost and only use public transportation. Or maybe we think that global warming is a myth. I’ve said it before: It’s difficult to typecast a poet, but I think that deep down, the poet’s regard for narrative reminds us that all stories are designed to teach, and the story of the environmental crisis carries somber warnings we all must heed.

However, it also has brought some relief to poets as it validates the bohemian lifestyle. Certain poets across this great planet may be drinking from unwashed cups or wearing dirty socks or not washing our hair, condoned by the new “think green” lifestyle. We save so much energy when we do laundry as little as possible and do the dishes less than that, and hence the responsibility to clean our personal effects is trumped by the responsibility to save the planet.

Most notably though, in the hopes of inspiring change in others, poets are foretelling inevitable doom:

…From my five arms and all my hands,
From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
From my car passing under the stars,
They Lion, from my children inherit,
From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,
From they sack and they belly opened
And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
They feed they Lion and he comes.

(Phillip Levine, “They Feed They Lion)

Wouldn’t you change your consumptive behavior after reading that?

I have a week off in September, and I don’t know where to go? Where would a poet recommend going on vacation?
— Madeleine K., Durham, New Hampshire

Tibet. But if that’s not feasible, I recommend going to the vacation spot that’s closest in gas mileage to your home, a place that will interrupt your daily routine but not break the bank. Kasper, the main character of Torill Kove’s short film The Danish Poet travels from Denmark to Norway, gets lost on the way to Sigrid Undset’s house, and spends his holiday milking cows on a farm and falling in love with the farm owner’s daughter (who is of course already set to marry someone else).

You don’t need to go to some faraway land in order to relax, shake your life up, or meet your star-crossed love. But if you do go to some vacation hot spot, Elizabeth Bishop would recommend that you notice also its ugly side, as she notices in “Florida”:

The state with the prettiest name,
the state that floats in brackish water…
Thirty or more buzzards are drifting down, down, down,
over something they have spotted in the swamp,
in circles like stirred-up flakes of sediment
sinking through water.
Smoke from woods-fires filters fine blue solvents.
On stumps and dead trees the charring is like black velvet.
The mosquitoes
go hunting to the tune of their ferocious obbligatos.
After dark, the fireflies map the heavens in the marsh
until the moon rises.
Cold white, not bright, the moonlight is coarse-meshed,
and the careless, corrupt state is all black specks
too far apart, and ugly whites; the poorest
post-card of itself…

Without the ugly, or what we perceive as ugly, we would not have what we perceive as beautiful. Without the undesirable, we wouldn’t know what we desire.  So if you go to a beach — and maybe it’s a nice beach that you’ve read about, where the ocean is clear blue and the sand is soft and inviting — don’t lament the turd you step in after it washes up on shore. That turd is the reason that you’ll never forget that trip as long as you live. 

I hate everything.  I hate poets and I hate their poems and I hate your column.
— D.H., Los Angeles, CA

Emily Dickinson says, “I had no time to hate, because/ The grave would hinder me,/ And life was not so ample I/ Could finish enmity.” D.H., life is not long enough to hate, and you’re probably not doing it right anyway. True hate requires a life-long devotion, and even that wouldn’t be enough.  You would have to schedule a life-long ritual of hating this column, every day, every hour, every minute of your life, in order to say, truly, that you hate my column. And to be humble, it’s just not worth it. Don’t you have something else to do?  Can’t you seek out something that you like, or that you at least don’t hate? I think the process of trying to find something that you don’t hate should inspire at least a bit of joy, a little bit of contentment, and maybe even a little bit of love. Dickinson concludes her poem, “Nor had I time to love; but since/ Some industry must be,/ The little toil of love, I thought,/ Was large enough for me.” According to Dickinson, there’s no time to truly love either, but a little bit of love is productive enough to be a reasonable pursuit. On the contrary, hate is counter-productive. It destroys everything with boot scuffs and swamp water, and why would you want to do that? Oh, I get it: Abstract art, right? Wow, so you’re really an abstract artist trapped in the body of a really bitter someone who professes to hate everything? I like that! Then by all means, D.H., go on hating. • 8 September 2008