Bearing Witness to a Disappearing World: Poetry in a Time of Mass Extinction

7 December 2017
By Dr Michael Malay

Dr Michael Malay, who is an Early Career Leverhulme Fellow at the University of Bristol, and a member of ShARC.


In ‘Blacksmith Shop’, Czeslaw Milosz describes a childhood visit to the local smithy. He remembers the blacksmith standing above the anvil, hammering away at a piece of iron, and the incredible heat of the furnace. A group of horses stand outside, ready to be shod, while a collection of tools await repair: ‘plowshares’, ‘sledge runners’, ‘harrows’. ‘I liked the bellows operated by rope’, Milosz writes, and ‘that blowing and blazing of fire’. Transfixed, he watches as the iron is bent glowingly into a horseshoe.

Milosz’s catalogue of objects is mundane. The poem lists the normal accoutrements of a blacksmith shop: bellows, a pair of tongs, an anvil. Yet there is an intensity to the speaker’s gaze, and a tenderness to the poet’s voice, that transfigures what it names. Held lovingly in the space of the poem’s recollections, the scene is restored to the primacy of the present tense. ‘I stare and stare’, Milosz writes, recalling the gusts of heat at his chest. ‘It seems I was called for this: / To glorify things just because they are’.

I had reason to think of Milosz recently, when, earlier this summer, the Polish government defied an EU court order to halt logging in Białowieża, one of Europe’s last primeval forests and home to the rare European bison. And the thought emerged: if one task of the poet, as implicitly defined by Milosz, is to ‘glorify things just because they are’, what might it mean to write poetry today, in an era of climate change, environmental degradation and mass species extinction? How might one bear witness to a disappearing world? (‘Daffodils at the end of January!’, a friend remarked, uttering a sentence his grandparents would not have understood. Meanwhile, current rates of extinction are 1,000 times higher than normal background levels, with dozens of species dying off every day. In a few decades, whole forms of life – whole ways of understanding – have changed.)

Milosz exemplifies one possible response to the current tumult. Born in 1911, he was three when the Great War broke out, six at the time of the Russian Revolution and 28 at the start of World War II, which he spent in Nazi-occupied Warsaw translating Shakespeare and writing for underground presses. Despite writing poetry at a time of great upheaval, however, he managed to keep faith with the aesthetic impulse to praise and to appraise, to record and to make – and, through making – to mend. He saw one function of poetry as holding up an imaginative shield to the world, by way of protecting things – people, landscapes, objects – from the ravages of historical time. That haven was ultimately a flimsy one – it was made of words, after all – but since words were carried from person to person, like secret letters passed between friends, the fragility of poetry was also its strength. Precious things, whispered into the ear, inspired a fidelity unlike anything else. ‘Working with Czeslaw is like reliving the whole of the 20th century through this prism of great specificity’, according to Robert Hass, one of Milosz’s English translators. ‘It has been very important to him to remember exactly how, say, wine was stored in 1930s working-class Paris, or the precise details of the elaborate hairdo of his piano teacher in Vilno in 1921.’

But Milosz was not only a poet of celebration. If one function of poetry was to affirm the beauty of things, another was to judge, censure, rebuke. ‘Do not feel safe’, Milosz writes in one of his poems, for the ‘poet remembers’. He remembers those who ‘wronged’ their fellows, who laughed at the scene of the crime, and who blurred the line between ‘good and evil’. And, against these acts of destruction, acts which have an interest in effacing their own presence, the poet bears witness and testifies: ‘The words are written down, the deed, the date’. The living, Milosz has written elsewhere, ‘owe it to those who no longer can speak to tell their story for them.’

Today, one might say that the criminals are the Murdochs, Kochs and Tillersons of the world, as well as the multinational companies – the BPs, Monsantos and Cargills – who continue to plunder earth’s resources at a time of swift ecological unravelling. All the same, the marvels of reality continue too, in the form of great fish and bird migrations, the standing miracles of ancient forests, or the simple but mysterious thereness of the earth’s elements: air, water, earth, fire. Were Milosz still writing today, his ledger would still contain two columns: one for beauty, one for justice.

For all his exemplariness as a poet of witness, however, Milosz did not and could not foresee the complications of the current moment. Witness poetry implies the hope of restitution and redress – a rebalancing of the scales, even if that rebalancing is enacted aesthetically, through poetry, rather than institutionally, in the political sphere. But what hope for those countless creatures who perish without word or witness? What representations – legal, poetic, or otherwise – do they receive? Equally, how might one identify the deed, let alone the date of the crime, when the drivers of extinction and climate change are so widely distributed and its effects so unimaginably large? ‘O my love, where are they, where are they going’, Milosz writes in one of his poems, recalling a night when his friend pointed to a hare running across a wintry road. ‘I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder’, his poem concludes – but it’s an emphasis we might be tempted to reverse. In a landscape where brown hares are critically endangered – in the UK, their population has declined by 80% in the past 10 years – we do ask (appropriately, I think) out of sorrow.

As a poet, Milosz was concerned with the ‘esse’ of things – that aggregate of qualities that made that thing quite unlike anything else. He was interested in what he called ‘the immense call of the Particular’. But the present moment is one in which the ‘Particular’ is itself at stake, in which ‘esse’ is critically endangered. This can be understood in a number of ways: biological and cultural. When a species becomes extinct, the tree of life is incomparably diminished: the world loses a singular genetic configuration, the result of millions of years of evolution. But more than this biological loss, extinction also leads to the unravelling of connections within a biotic community. The loss of a species is also a cultural event — it involves the disappearance of a whole form of life, that totality of relations between a species, its environment and its human and nonhuman neighbours. When precious genetic cargo is sunk, it sends ripples through the ecosystem of which it is a part, setting in motion a whole series of changes, some of which we can measure, others of which are beyond our ken. It also sends ripples through time, showing us the gap between the landscape our ancestors inhabited and the landscapes we inhabit now.

English poetry looks very different from this perspective. In ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, W. B. Yeats dreamed of a place where the evenings were ‘full of the linnet’s wings’ – but we might read that poem differently now, as shadowed by a silence the poet did not hear. (Linnet populations in Ireland have declined drastically since the 1950s.) Similarly, in ‘Sunday Morning’, Wallace Stevens describes the ‘Ambiguous undulations’ made by pigeons ‘as they sink / Downward to darkness, on extended wings’ – an image which now feels ominous, a dark vision of disappearance itself. English poetry is likewise full of nightingales, cuckoos and mistle-thrushes – but their songs, which once thickened the sky, are becoming increasingly rare. ‘The Bird of Time has but a little way / To fly’, Edward FitzGergald wrote, in his 1859 translation of the Rubáiyát. The line ends: ‘and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing’.

It is easy to become despondent, indeed sorrowful, about these losses: each day we are confronted with appalling statistics about the loosening footholds (and wing-holds) of mammals and birds in the UK, not to mention thousands of insect species whose habitats are being fundamentally changed by human intervention. As Ursula Heise reminds us, however, narratives of ecological decline, which often borrow from genre conventions such as tragedy and elegy, can easily turn into narratives of human decline. Environmental ‘crisis typically becomes a proxy for cultural concerns’, she writes in Imagining Extinction, a way of telling stories about the fallen experience of modernity. We therefore need to understand when sorrow is misplaced – when it is a projection of cultural anxieties onto nature – and when it stems from a genuine reckoning of what is being lost. The risk of not doing so is to tell a story that begins to tell us – a hopeless story about inevitable decline.

The other risk of declensionist narratives is that they ignore the capacity of certain creatures to adapt during times of change. As Chris Thomas argues in Inheritors of the Earth, some animals seem to be thriving in the present era. We have damaged the planet beyond any reasonable measure, he admits, altering its ‘great chemical cycles’ and acidifying its oceans, but ‘we are still surrounded by large numbers of species, many of which appear to be benefiting from our presence’ and adapting to ‘this human-altered world’. He also argues that we should situate today’s changes in their ‘appropriate historical context, which involves time spans much longer than we are used to thinking about in our everyday lives.’ This is ‘necessary because the story of life on Earth is one of never-ending change: be that the arrival and disappearance of species from a particular location (ecological change) or the longer-term formation of new species and extinction of others (evolutionary change).’

This is not to discount the losses of anthropogenic extinction, which are immense, nor the profligacy with which capitalism exploits human and nonhuman life. The long view that Thomas takes may also come with a subtle danger. Deep time consoles us by reminding us of earth’s endurance and continuity, but such a view may also desensitise us to the present, to the precious and fragile life being lost now. We are thus relieved of the duties we have as citizens of the earth: the duty to articulate an alternative to the economic systems that are ravaging the planet, the duty to preserve our green and blue commons for future generations, and the duty to foster a notion of citizenship that places the human in humble relations to other creatures, as one ecological fellow among others. Nevertheless, the persistence Thomas celebrates in the natural world is real. And this persistence may offer its own form of hope – that we too may find ways of flourishing in uncertain times, or, more selflessly, that animal life will continue evolving and proliferating with or without their human fellows, inheritors of a future that will continue despite us.

All of which is to say that, although much has changed since his era, Czeslaw Milosz may still offer a guide for our times. The conditions for bearing witness have altered dramatically (extinction threatens the very reality of the ‘Particular’) and it may be harder to isolate the scene of the crime, such is the scale of the current unravelling. And yet the poet’s insistence on celebrating the beauty of world, even as one kept a record of ‘those who wronged’, is vital as ever. To bear witness today means to grieve over what is going and gone, to resist a culture in which such losses go ungrieved, and to identify the forces – political and economic – that drive environmental destruction and extinction. But it also means to be captured and moved by the natural world, which every day presents us with little gates leading to heaven: the song of a blackbird on a summer evening, sea trout returning to rivers to spawn, a hare flashing across a wintry road. We need hope in order to fight for change; otherwise, we only have despair.