Words on Fire – So the Planet Won’t Die of the Human

Margaret Atwood (Photo from the Lavin Agency Website)

Margaret Atwood (Photo from the Lavin Agency Website)

Musicians, poets and novelists will be situating their lyrics and plots in new contexts.

— Barry Lord from Art & Energy: How Culture Changes, AAM Press, 2014



Sometimes I am sick of humans except for babies, poets and the ones I love!

— Brenda Hillman, excerpt from her poem A Brutal Encounter Recollected in Tranquility from Seasonal Works With Letters On Fire, Wesleyan University Press, 2013

There is already much charged response to Margaret Atwood’s article a few days ago: It’s Not Climate Change – It’s Everything Change. For me the shock was the realization that as we move to a world without oil (a thought that still gob smacks me as a former oil and gas money manager) so much else will change. So much I take for granted will change and shift. To read Atwood’s article click here.

This idea of a change almost too big to imagine caught me, not so much in what Atwood wrote but later with the response to Atwood’s article by author Barry Lord, self-defined world renowned museum planner and thought leader, whose book (Art & Energy: How Culture Changes) was highlighted in Atwood’s article. To read Lord’s article click here. Here is an excerpt from his response:

As Atwood observes, my 2014 book Art & Energy: How Culture Changes demonstrates how all of our external energy sources have been accompanied by cultural transitions, from the mastery of fire and the culture of community around the hearth that it made possible to the culture of stewardship of the earth and the body that we are adopting as we switch to renewable energy.

Now we have daily news of the struggle between that incoming culture and the still dominant oil-based culture of consumption on which we are so dependent.

These words got to me, the idea of cultural change especially, but it was these ones I highlighted in one of this blog’s epigraphs, that hit me in my poet’s solar plexus:

Musicians, poets and novelists will be situating their lyrics and plots in new contexts. Anxiety will persist, especially since nuclear energy will almost certainly be part of our renewable package; but we will be anxious about a wider range of concerns as we try to find out what it really means to be stewards of each other.

This line gives me such pause: Musicians, poets and novelists will be situating their lyrics and plots in new contexts. My first thought: what does it mean for my poetry? In a world that appears to be approaching a crisis of no return the age old question: does poetry matter? hit me again.

Does poetry of everyday things matter? Do broken hearts, lost jobs, police violence, war? More so, I think and feel. as we learn to have more compassion, to be, as Lord says, stewards of each other. And it may mean that more poets will take their poetry out of the private sphere and become activists like the celebrated American poets Denise Levertov  (1918 – 1996) and Muriel Rukeyser (1913 – 1980).

Isn’t that what poetry does? Help us to see through the eyes of another, to realize we are not alone, that we are not just consumers needed for what we buy not what we love! And if we love each other? And the earth? What then?
Do we use our poems to prick the conscience and awareness of others?

This kind of poetry, which is hard to pull off without becoming didactic, is already occurring! And no where more forcibly than Rattle journal’s weekly poem series “Poets Respond” which is published every Sunday based on a news event in the world from the previous week.

This week’s selection, not about the death of Cecil the lion, but the murder and rape of the eight year old girl by a fifteen year old boy who lived in her apartment complex, cries out with its compassion as the poet imagines the agony of the two mothers living side by side with their own terrible griefs. To read the poem click here.

What do you give?
I’d like to know
what size box to
have on hand.
I’d like to know
how many open
spaces such a
box can handle.
I’d like to know
I’ll never need
one for

Amy Elizabeth Robinson from Rattle: Poets Respond

And long before the Rattle series began this kind of poetry has been thriving; a poetry immersed in the on the on-goingness of the daily events of the world and not just in the interior self-focused world of the poet. And in many cases these differing ways of seeing and experiencing the world are joined together, are not treated as opposing dualities.

A poet, social activist and teacher who moves freely between these worlds is the American Brenda Hillman whose collection, Seasonal Works With Letters On Fire, was the international winner of the 2013 Griffin Poetry Prizes, now considered among the most prestigious poetry prizes around.

In all her work Hillman’s humanity shines through: this line from Seasonal Works floors me: Sometimes I am sick of humans except for babies, poets and the ones I love!
American Poet Brenda Hillman

American Poet Brenda Hillman


Hillman may be sick of humans but she is not sick of writing about us! In Seasonal Works she defines a poetics in an Ars Poetica called ECOPETICS MINIFESTO: A DRAFT FOR ANGIE that might be a perfect example of the poetics Lord predicts in his response to Atwood:


E-then a poem is its own action, performing practical miracles:
1.”the miracle of language roots” – to return with lexical adventures
2. “the miracle of perception” to hour the senses
3.”the miracle of nameless feeling” -to reflect the weight of the
subjective, the contours of emotion
4.”the miracle of the social world” -to enter into collective bargaining
with the political & the social

F-& though powerless to halt the destruction of bioregions, the poem can brought away from the computer. The poet can accompany acts of resistance so the planet won’t die of the human.

Brenda Hillman, ibid

Here is a prose poem of Hillman’s that, for me, emdoies her ECOPOETICS MINIFESTO:


Who is poetry for? Truth is, I don’t know. The folks at tailgate parties before the game, in their lawn chairs – are they dying everyday for lack of what is/ found there?
It’s been proposed that we take poems about offshore oil drilling to congress-/
sional staff. My district is shaped like a bouncing blue ameba. Ironic to
drive 20 miles to protest oil drilling in a dreamily-driving-to-the suburbs
depression. Inside the “atrium – a fountain with ridges – climbing the stairs with Janet & taking the poems like contraband across the threshold.
M the district director sits with us; she tells about bills the congresswoman
will put forth. She is kind & listens carefully while we read to her at a huge
table. 3 women, 2 poems.
2 flags hang patiently listening from their poles. i am nervouse & want to
not sweat & cry in official places, to be calm & believe in the system, as M
does. But the system makes us crazy; we’ve become harpies, harridans,
banshees, devils moaning at the gas pump. In the Oresteria, underground
Furies are paid off by the rational sky gods. Let’s be nice now. i want my
representative to shriek in COngress, not be polite. Here we are in his of-
fice – 3 women, 2 poems. i am grateful for their company. We are power-
less to save the pelicans &

[In the published poem, here, a picture of the 3 women is inserted]

the manatees.                      Big oil has bought everything but not my
armpits, which are sweating in solidarity with the Commons before the
18th century Enclosure Acts. Sensible limits to use. Oceans could be the
Commons. As would volcanoes & the moon. Outside, early spring & light
rain. Up the devil mountain, quail & brush rabbits scurry. Janet & i hold
our arms out. Calendula deodorant smell mixes with the air & the hurry

Brenda Hillman, ibid [The formatting of this poem here, differs slightly (indents missing) from the published version]

I had the pleasure of introducing Hillman at the Cascadia Poetry Festival held in Nanaimo a few months ago. By her appearance and demeanour I could not label her as a fire-breathing activist. What I could label is her huge curiosity and love for this planet. What I could see was not her powerlessness but the power of her poems and her commitment as a poet to a new stewardship of people and this planet:

& though powerless to halt the destruction of bioregions, the poem can brought away from the computer. The poet can accompany acts of resistance so the planet won’t die of the human.


  1. Carol Bower Foote
    Posted August 2, 2015 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    A timely, highly relevant, and important topic and commentary, Richard. Thank you.
    You might enjoy this book: Spiritual Ecology, The Cry of the Earth (which talks about this much more global change touching all aspects of our lives)..edited by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, published 2013, or Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken published 6 years earlier.
    “Something big is coming. It’s still a secret but arriving everywhere.
    The atmosphere is charged with longing and searching.
    The poets and the mystery-lovers know.
    They are gathering now.” (Rumi)

  2. Richard
    Posted August 2, 2015 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    So great to hear from you. Hope you are flourishing and writing lots. I will look up these books!

  3. Carol Bower Foote
    Posted August 2, 2015 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    And I am going to look up Brenda HIllman’s work.

  4. Richard
    Posted August 2, 2015 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    Her book Death Tractates based on the death of a dear friend is riveting.

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