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The Aral Sea

In preparation for something next Monday completely different from the poetry of Plath and almost certainly more important, I’m republishing this poem.

 

 

The cover of a Bahá’í compilation: for the full text see link.

Every man of discernment, while walking upon the earth, feeleth indeed abashed, inasmuch as he is fully aware that the thing which is the source of his prosperity, his wealth, his might, his exaltation, his advancement and power is, as ordained by God, the very earth which is trodden beneath the feet of all men. There can be no doubt that whoever is cognizant of this truth, is cleansed and sanctified from all pride, arrogance, and vainglory…. 

(Bahá’u’lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, Wilmette, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1988, p. 44) 

This is where we are in history – to think
the table will remain full; to think the forest will
remain where we have pushed it; to think our bubble of
good fortune will save us from the night – a bird flies in
from the dark, flits across a lighted hall and disappears.

(From ‘Where We Are (after Bede)’ by Stephen Dobyns in Staying Alive: real poems for unreal times edited by Neil Astley – page 52)

In preparation for something next Monday completely different from the poetry of Plath and almost certainly more important, I’m republishing this sequence. 

Picking up from where we left off last time, what if anything can be done? 

Let’s start with Katherine Hayhoe’s perspective:

The technology and knowledge are there. The economics already make sense. In Texas, where I live, the biggest military base, Fort Hood, switched last year to renewables because they were cheaper than natural gas. And finally, it means weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, which is challenged by the fact that the majority of the world’s richest companies have made their money from the fossil fuel economy – so the majority of the wealth and power remains in their hands.

There is the possibility of our using economic leverage:

In the world we live in, money speaks loudly. Thanks to the growing divestment movement, we have seen cities, universities and entire countries, in the case of Ireland, withdrawing investments from fossil fuel assets. This isn’t only happening for ethical reasons but for practical ones as well. As clean energy continues to expand, those assets could become stranded. When money talks the world listens

Naomi Klein makes essentially the same point in This Changes Everything, emphasising at the same time the need for reinvestment in renewable energy (page 403):

The benefit of an accompanying reinvestment strategy, or a visionary investment strategy from the start, is that it has the potential to turn the screws on the industry much tighter, strengthening the renewable energy sector so that it is better able to compete directly with fossil fuels, while bolstering the frontline land defenders who need to be able to offer real economic alternatives to their communities.

Investment agencies active in the UK are beginning to respond. AXA is one such example. 

This is not an option though for those with no money to invest.

Veganism seems to be a possibility, according to one Guardian report: 

In May, scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet declared that avoiding meat and dairy products was the single biggest thing an individual could do for the environment.

Joseph Poore, of Oxford University, who led the research, said: “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth – not just greenhouse gases but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use. It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car.”

According to the supermarket chain Waitrose, a third of UK consumers say they have deliberately reduced the amount of meat they eat or removed it from their diet entirely. One in eight Britons are now vegetarian or vegan, and a further 21% say they are flexitarian – where a largely vegetable-based diet is supplemented occasionally with meat.

For health reasons three years ago I switched to soya yoghurt and oat milk. Recently, in the light of all these investigations I am working my way towards going vegan. I don’t have a problem giving up eggs. They’re boring. But cheese, that’s another story. Cheese is second only to coffee as one of my must-have intakes. 

However, as I experimented with various vegan versions, I discovered a surprisingly convincing blue-cheese-flavoured vegan option in Holland and Barretts, even though it’s as white as a sheet. What’s even more surprising is that the cheese slices and grated cheese I bought from Waitrose, though they contain high percentages of coconut oil, don’t taste of coconut at all. This is good news for me, because if they did, it would be a deal breaker. I hate coconut, a mysterious impediment to a good life that my wife finds hard to understand.  

I can’t quite convince myself that this move will checkmate the fossil fuel fanatics, but it seems a step in the right direction, however small, similar to refusing to buy South African produce during apartheid. A possible sign that I might be right in that respect were the packets of vegan cheese nestling alongside other produce on the butcher’s stall in Hereford’s indoor market the other day. ‘Were the stall holders hedging their bets?’ I wondered with a broad grin on my face.

Moving towards a vegan diet is slightly challenging even for a long-term vegetarian like me, and I still have not managed to eliminate milk entirely from my coffee and tea (and I know I still shouldn’t be drinking coffee – its carbon footprint is too big). For most people it is likely to seem too big a step. Thankfully recent research suggests there is a less demanding but still effective step:

The first science-based diet that tackles both the poor food eaten by billions of people and averts global environmental catastrophe has been devised. It requires huge cuts in red meat-eating in western countries and radical changes across the world.

The “planetary health diet” was created by an international commission seeking to draw up guidelines that provide nutritious food to the world’s fast-growing population. At the same time, the diet addresses the major role of farming – especially livestock – in driving climate change, the destruction of wildlife and the pollution of rivers and oceans.

Globally, the diet requires red meat and sugar consumption to be cut by half, while vegetables, fruit, pulses and nuts must double. But in specific places the changes are stark. North Americans need to eat 84% less red meat but six times more beans and lentils. For Europeans, eating 77% less red meat and 15 times more nuts and seeds meets the guidelines.

The article recognises that mobilising sufficient people to adopt this diet won’t be easy:

The report acknowledges the radical change it advocates and the difficulty of achieving it: “Humanity has never aimed to change the global food system on the scale envisioned. Achieving this goal will require rapid adoption of numerous changes and unprecedented global collaboration and commitment: nothing less than a Great Food Transformation.”

They do not feel that it is insanely utopian and completely beyond reach, though:

But it notes that major global changes have occurred before, such as the Green Revolution that hugely increased food supplies in the 1960s. Moves to tax red meat, prevent the expansion of farmland and protect swathes of ocean must all be considered, the commission said.

The Bahá’í Perspective

Not surprisingly I have also turned to the Bahá’í Revelation for some possible answers.

In his book Revelation and Social Reality Paul Lample helps explain the hard realities. The Universal House of Justice describes it as the work of centuries. Lample writes (page 48):

Generation after generation of believers will strive to translate the teachings into a new social reality… It is not a project in which Baha’is engage apart from the rest of humanity.

He amplifies the second point later (page 109):

. . . emphasis on the contributions Bahá’ís are to make to the civilisation-building process is not intended to diminish the significance of efforts being exerted by others.

In fact (page 210) ‘Spiritual progress and moral behaviour are won by degrees, in incrementally better actions day by day, in an incrementally better world generation after generation.’

Nor will it be achieved by merely materialistic motivation nor by self-interest no matter how enlightened (pages 147-48):

The profound and far-reaching changes, the unity and unprecedented cooperation required to reorient the world towards an environmentally sustainable and just future, will only be possible by touching the human spirit, by appealing to those universal values which alone can empower individuals and people to act in accordance with the long-term interests of the planet and humanity as a whole.

Progress in turn results from the mutually reinforcing interaction of individual and society (page 58): ‘Living a Bahá’í life involves the twofold purpose of individual and social transformation.’ He quotes the Guardian’s insight (Shoghi Effendi, from a letter to an individual Baha’i, 17 February 1933) that:

We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.

This is a cogent account of the process of creative consciousness-raising. So, what’s my problem exactly? 

There are no prizes for spotting it. If it will take us centuries to arrive at the wide-spread lifting of our collective consciousness to a level that would make effective action against global-warming not just possible but absolutely certain, and we only have a few decades at best, what’s going to happen, especially when we have dynamics at work such as Katherine Hayhoe describes?

The more doom-filled reports the scientists release, the stronger the pushback from politicians whose power, ideology and funding depends on maintaining the status quo, and who are supported by those who fear the solutions to climate change more than they fear its impacts.

Can we do anything effective to forestall climate armageddon?

The Bahá’í International Community, an NGO, issued a statement in 2015. This was in response to the UN’s Agenda 30, in which a key paragraph reads:

We resolve, between now and 2030, to end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities within and among countries; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and to ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources. We resolve also to create conditions for sustainable, inclusive and sustained economic growth, shared prosperity and decent work for all, taking into account different levels of national development and capacities.

The BIC statement includes the following:

Baha’i efforts at social action seek to reach beyond establishing a mere set of activities, and address deeper issues such as modes of expression and patterns of thought and behaviour.

Such endeavours have direct relevance to the goals articulated in Agenda 2030. For example, . . ., in-depth exploration of the implications of the oneness of humankind has fostered a growing sense of world citizenship and strengthened commitment to more sustainable lifestyles (SDG 12). [Goal 12 reads: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.]

Goal 13 reads: ‘Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts’ and includes, amongst a list of mostly governmental initiatives, ‘13.3 Improve education, awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning.’ This falls directly into the focus of the Bahá’í programme for engaging youth in community service, and the BIC includes a reference to it in their 2015 statement:

Young adolescents, for example, build their capacity to undertake acts of service, but also to discern what service is needed in their community. Is there a lack of jobs providing a sufficient living wage (SDG 8)? Distrust and hostility between ethnic or racial groups (SDG 16)? Exploitation and pollution of the natural environment (SDG 13)? Developing the ability to make such assessments empowers individuals to formulate action according to their own perceptions and values — prompted by a dynamic and advancing process of action and reflection.

In addition to that, Arthur Dahl, whose blog post is linked to the International Environment Forum, a Bahá’í inspired organization for environment and sustainability, summarises what we need to do as follows:

Change ourselves. Addressing our demand for energy is the biggest challenge. When we use an electrical appliance, spend time inside a building, use hot water, travel anywhere in a vehicle, or buy or eat anything, we are contributing to the problem. We need to start today to make sacrifices: drive less, fly less, consume less meat, have fewer children. A plant-based diet reduces a food carbon footprint by 90%. Avoid beef with a carbon footprint three times pork and six times chicken. Tropical fruits imported by air, and cheese are other offenders. Reduce short car journeys; car-pool, bike or walk instead. But one vacation flight would wipe out the benefits of going vegetarian for a year or driving 2500 km less. In your home, replace appliances with energy-efficient models, lower the temperature of hot water, use a low-flow showerhead, do not leave appliances on standby, and dry washing outside. Smart thermostats can reduce household emissions by up to 26%. Moving to a smaller home can cut emissions by 27%. At the office, turning off lights and your workstation when leaving, and unplugging your phone charger, can cut emissions by up to 28%. Working from home in the US can mean driving 77% less.

Above all, there is a lack of political will for the biggest transformation ever. People have to demand these changes with mass movements. This may seem impossible, but we have to try. We need to convince everyone that green alternatives improve our quality of life as well as the environment.

There is a compilation of more relevant Bahá’í quotations at this link.

In November 2017 the Universal House of Justice, at the Bahá’í World Centre, wrote a letter in response to issues raised with it. The entire letter requires careful reading. I will only share a small number of key insights here. They acknowledge that ‘there does exist at present a striking degree of agreement among experts in relevant fields about the cause and impact of climate change.’ However they warn that ‘A phenomenon as complex as climate change cannot be reduced to simple propositions or simplistic policy prescriptions.’ There are traps we need to avoid:

Bahá’ís have to avoid being drawn into the all too common tendencies evident in contemporary discourse to delineate sharp dichotomies, become ensnared in contests for power, and engage in intractable debate that obstructs the search for viable solutions to the world’s problems.

They also point out that:

The incessant focus on generating and magnifying points of difference rather than building upon points of agreement leads to exaggeration that fuels anger and confusion,

This does not prevent Bahá’í involvement:

While as a fundamental principle Bahá’ís do not engage in partisan political affairs, this should not be interpreted in a manner that prevents the friends from full and active participation in the search for solutions to the pressing problems facing humanity.

Care needs to be taken though in how this is done:

Whenever Bahá’ís do participate in activities associated with this topic in the wider society, they can help to contribute to a constructive process by elevating the discourse above partisan concerns and self-interest to strive to achieve unity of thought and action.

Hopefully I have not transgressed that injunction in my desire to explain my position.

The Current State of Play

Naomi Klein detects signs of hope, however fragile, both in terms of more effective action, thanks in part to the concerted opposition from diverse interest groups triggered by the high-handed over-reaching of the fracking and tar oil industries, and to a changing perspective about power relations with our home planet.

She quotes the words of Melinda Laboucan-Massino, a charismatic spokesperson for the Lubicon First Nation (page 322):

‘People are listening now,’ she told me, with tears in her eyes in the summer of 2013. ‘But it took a long time for people to get to that place.’ And this, she said, means that ‘there is hope. But it can be pretty dire sometimes in Alberta.’

Recent developments in Canada, logged by the Guardian newspaper, suggest there is still a long way to go, and ground that seemed to have been secured remains under possible threat. For example, ‘In 1997 the supreme court put an end to one of the longest-running legal battles in Canadian history, ruling that the Wet’suwet’en had effectively demonstrated clear title to their land. The plaintiffs exhausted more than an estimated $25m on legal fees – only to have a retrial called, leaving uncertainty around their claim.’

Klein’s insight concerning our relations with the earth, rooted too deeply in our earlier exploitative arrogance and misplaced sense of power, is also hopefully spreading (page 285):

In pragmatic terms, our challenge is less to save the earth from ourselves and more to save ourselves from an earth that, if pushed too far, has ample power to rock, burn, and shake us off completely. That knowledge should inform all we do.

I was reminded of these words of Bahá’u’lláh as I read that (Persian Hidden Words: No 20):

. . . ye walk on My earth complacent and self-satisfied, heedless that My earth is weary of you and everything within it shunneth you. Were ye but to open your eyes, ye would, in truth, prefer a myriad griefs unto this joy, and would count death itself better than this life.

Every great and successful civilisation in the past has inexorably expanded until it reached an impassible barrier that meant it had to either change direction or die. Those that were flexible enough to change direction, and China seems to have been one such so far at least, managed to find a way of dodging the bullet and flourishing even across millennia. The rest of them are now extinct as civilisations, though, because they were not global, they didn’t take too many other peoples down with them. If, as major global polluters, we don’t want to join them, and take most of the rest of the world with us, we’ll have to take action along the right lines right now, it seems to me.

It should be a no-brainer, then, to choose total transformation rather than annihilation within decades. 

Paradoxically, the very magnitude of the increasingly imminent threat and the totality of its potentially destructive power may be the trigger to our mobilising a more effective response. As David Wallace-Wells puts it in his apocalyptic warning, The Uninhabitable Earth (page 25):

If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it.

So, which do we collectively prefer – transformation of annihilation? The answer to that will lie in the overall pattern of our actions from now on.

Meanwhile I seek to slake my imperishable thirst for an immediate, impossible solution to this intractable problem with the less traumatic puzzle of a sealed-room-murder episode of Death in Paradise, all too aware the title might be prophetic, and not just for the inhabitants of islands in the tropics, but also for those of us who live in the high tech cocoon of an intensely industrialised world. 

Reflect upon the inner realities of the universe, the secret wisdoms involved, the enigmas, the interrelationships, the rules that govern all. For every part of the universe is connected with every other part by ties that are very powerful and admit of no imbalance, nor any slackening whatever . . .

Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá page 157. 

[In the novel, Mary Treat, a 19th Century naturalist and Darwinist, tries to convey to Thatcher Greenwood what sustains her relationship with plants]

‘I become attached, you see. After so many months with these plants, observing them intimately, I begin to feel as if we are of the same world.’

‘But you are of the same world, of course.’ 

(Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver – page 83):

In preparation for something next Monday completely different from the poetry of Plath and almost certainly more important, I’m republishing this sequence. 

Denialism

At the end of the last post we left this question hanging in there air: why are we still not doing enough?

To go some way towards answering that, we need to factor in the force that Keith Kahn-Harris points towards in his book Denial: The Unspeakable Truth (page 15 – my emphasis): ‘[The] desire, for something not to be true, is the driver of denialism.’

Both Naomi Klein (page 168) and Kahn-Harris (page 17) agree this involves both ‘knowing and not knowing.’ This makes it at some level motivated, not simply the result of primitive wiring or lazy default modes. Keith Kahn-Harris (page 25) pins it down as follows: ‘denialism can usually be traced back to a kind of founding trauma, a shocking explosion of knowledge that directly threatens something fundamental to oneself or to a group of which one is a part,’ and later adds (page 73: ‘Humans still do the same short-sighted things [as the Easter Islanders did]: they just can’t avoid the burden of knowledge of the consequences.’

I can’t resist sharing his quotation (page 72) from Jared Diamond’s classic book on the extinction of civilisations, Collapse (page 114):

I have often asked myself, ‘What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?’ Like modern loggers, did he shout ‘Jobs, not trees!”? Or: ‘Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood’? Or: ‘We don’t have proof that there aren’t palm trees somewhere else on Easter, we need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering’?  

In a similar way, Jeremy Rifkin brings the Roman Empire into the frame in his The Empathic Civilisation (pages 249-50):

The popular conception is that Rome collapsed because of the decadence of its ruling class, the corruption of its leaders, exploitation of its servants and slaves, and the superior military tactics of invading barbarian hordes. While there is merit in this argument, the deeper cause of Rome’s collapse lies in the declining fertility of its soil and the decrease in agricultural yields. Its agricultural production could not provide sufficient energy to maintain Rome’s infrastructure and the welfare of its citizens. The exhaustion of Rome’s only available energy regime is a cautionary tale for our own civilisation as we begin to exhaust the cheap available fossil fuels that have kept our industrial society afloat.

Cognitive Dissonance

How plain has this pikestaff got to be before we take action?

This is where some psychobabble has to creep in. I think we’re dealing with our old enemy, dissonance reduction, here. We’ve met that already on this blog in terms of the slave trade and colonisation. John Fitzgerald Medina explains in his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology how the founders of America managed to reconcile the rhetoric of their egalitarian constitution with profiting from both their virtual genocide of the Native Americans and from their practice of slavery, by degrading the status of both populations to the somehow subhuman. 

Keith Kahn-Harris states (page 80: ‘As ecological destruction became unspeakable, global warming denialism emerged.’ A conscious recognition that we were destroying the planet would require us to revise our prevailing exploitative model of so-called civilisation and take action, or else label ourselves as revolting vandals on a global scale. Reducing this cognitive dissonance makes the temptation to deny the reality of manmade climate change irresistible, especially in the minds of those profiting most from the destruction who, incidentally, wield the most power in our society. 

There are vested and powerful interests capable of both insidiously manipulating our perspective and abusing power to block the implementation of effective remedies. Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything (page 151) describes the situation in America but it clearly applies more widely, though in slightly different ways in different places: 

All these attempts to fix glaring and fundamental flaws in the system have failed because large corporations wield far too much political power – a power exerted through corporate campaign contributions, many of them secret; through almost unfettered access to regulators via their lobbyists; through the notorious revolving door between business and government…’

She later explains (page 178): ‘Post-Enlightenment Western culture does not offer a roadmap for how to live that is not based on an extractivist, nonreciprocal relationship with nature.’

Too many of us have bought into this materialist myth, making it easy for those who benefit most from untrammelled growth to carry on unhindered.

Doughnut Economics (For Source of Image see link)

Signs of Hope?

There are signs that younger economists are beginning to question the values of unrestrained neo-liberalism and its emphasis on growth and profit. Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics is one example. She writes (page 74-75): 

We live now, says Daly, in Full World, with an economy that exceeds Earth’s regenerative and absorptive capacity by over-harvesting sources such as fish, and forests, and over-filling sinks such as the atmosphere and oceans.

Her book puts forward an alternative approach in detail. Her website contains this useful summary:

Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries is a playfully serious approach to framing that challenge, and it acts as a compass for human progress this century.

Another book, The Econocracy, speaking on behalf of young economists, seeks to redress the balance by dethroning the neo-liberal orthodoxy and democratising it (page 5): 

We are also trying to democratise economics because we believe that at its core economics should be a public discussion about how we organise society. There is an important role for experts here, but this role is as a humble advisor not a detached authority figure.

It will obviously be some time yet before such proposals have a major impact on how our society approaches these issues. 

In the meantime, things don’t look good.

Most of the attempts in the recent past to mobilise resistance to global-warming have been seriously flawed, as Klein explains (page 212-13):  

In addition to not doing much to actually lower emissions, these various approaches also served to reinforce the very ‘extrinsic’ values that we now know are greatest psychological barriers to climate action – from the worship of wealth and fame for their own sakes to the idea that change is something that is handed down from above by our betters, rather than something we demand for ourselves… Because the ‘solutions’ to climate change proposed by many green groups in this period were so borderline frivolous, many people concluded that the groups must have been exaggerating the scale of the problem. After all, if climate change really was as dire as Al Gore argued… Wouldn’t they be trying to shut down the fossil fuel companies?

How far from a tipping point?

Jeremy Rikin introduces evidence to illustrate his thesis that we are close to self-destruction (The Empathic Civilisation – page 25):

If there were any lingering doubt as to how close our species is coming to the very limits of its sustainability on earth, a single statistic is revealing of our current state of affairs: our scientists tell us that the nearly seven billion human beings now inhabiting the Earth make up less than 1% of the total biomass of all the Earth’s consumers. Yet with our complex global economic and social infrastructure, we are currently consuming nearly 24% of the net primary production on Earth . . .

We are establishing ever wider links with others (page 26) ‘yet the early light of global empathic consciousness is dimmed by the growing recognition it may come too late to address the spectre of climate change and the possible extinction of the human species.’

He then spells out what that means (ibid):

Our journey begins at the crossroads where the laws of energy that govern the universe come up against the human inclination to continually transcend our sense of isolation by seeking the companionship of others in evermore complex energy-consuming social arrangements. The underlying dialectic of human history is the continuous feedback loop between expanding empathy and increasing entropy.

Much later he introduces a concrete example from ancient history of this problematic interaction (page 222-23):

The same hydraulic technology that unleashed a vast increase in water energy flow, allowing the Sumerian people to build the world’s first great urban civilisation, extend the empathic bond, and advance human consciousness, led to an equally significant entropic impact on the surrounding environment that, in the end, cancelled out much of the gains, leaving both the civilisation and the environment impoverished.

There is obviously a major problem here. 

The window of opportunity to turn things round is now very narrow and the deadline very tight, but the blockages to progress are massive and are likely to take more time than we have got to remove them. 

Katherine Hayhoe points to one key issue:

We haven’t yet reached the tipping point to motivate sufficient action. But there has been a change. Ten years ago, few people felt personally affected by climate change. It seemed very distant. Today, most people can point to a specific way climate affects their daily lives. This is important because the three key steps to action are accepting that climate change is real, recognising it affects us, and being motivated to do something to fix it. Opinion polls in the US show 70% of people agree the climate is changing, but a majority still say it won’t affect them. 

While she sees some hope of progress she’s not optimistic that it will be enough:

I’d put my money on a gradual bend away from a higher scenario, which is where we are now, until accumulating and worsening climate disasters eventually lead to a collective “oh shit!” moment, when people finally realise climate impacts do pose a far greater threat than the solutions. At that point, I would hope the world would suddenly ramp up its carbon reduction to the scale of a Manhattan Project or a moon race and we would finally be able to make serious progress. The multitrillion-dollar question is simply when that tipping point in opinion will come, and whether it will be too late for civilisation as we know it. 

Even so, recent comparisons with how we tackled the hole in the ozone layer highlight the scale of the problem:

The reality is that environmental action was easier then because the world had more ecological breathing room, capitalism was less dominant and the corporate push-back – and control over politics – was weaker. The ozone layer was a relatively simple fix compared with the climate, which is the biggest, most complex, multidimensional challenge humanity has ever faced. It is one thing confronting a handful of chemical firms, quite another to take on the world’s fossil fuel companies, car manufacturers, cement-makers and agribusiness conglomerates, representing hundreds of millions of jobs, trillions of dollars and 200-odd years of industrial development.

So what exactly can and should we do right now?

More of that next time.

[The beloved of God] should conduct themselves in such manner that the earth upon which they tread may never be allowed to address to them such words as these: “I am to be preferred above you. For witness, how patient I am in bearing the burden which the husbandman layeth upon me. I am the instrument that continually imparteth unto all beings the blessings with which He Who is the Source of all grace hath entrusted me. Notwithstanding the honour conferred upon me, and the unnumbered evidences of my wealth—a wealth that supplieth the needs of all creation—behold the measure of my humility, witness with what absolute submissiveness I allow myself to be trodden beneath the feet of men…”

Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (V)

Scientific scholarship, even though it is a practice built by humans, meshes poorly with the adaptive strategies that make human civilisation possible.

Keith Kahn-Harris Denial: The Unspeakable Truth – page 96.

In preparation for something next Monday completely different from the poetry of Plath and almost certainly more important, I’m republishing this sequence. 

Blinkers

I’m not going to rehearse all the evidence in support of the idea that humanity is basically responsible for global warming. What I want to focus on is the problem of why it is not fully and widely enough recognised to trigger the required action. Nicholas Stern was very aware of this aspect of the issue and offered one possible explanation in his 2009 publication, A Blueprint for a Safer Planet (page 3):to

Climate change is a problem which arises from a buildup of greenhouse gases over time and the effects come through with long lags of several decades. If the world waits before taking the problems seriously, until Bangladesh, the Netherlands and Florida are underwater, it will be too late to back ourselves out of a huge hole. A special challenge of making policy here is that we are fast approaching a crisis which requires decision and action now, but we cannot yet directly experience the real magnitude of the dangers we are causing.

Before I plunge in, to anyone reading this who is significantly younger than I am, I feel I must begin with an apology for the probability that my generation will be bequeathing you a wrecked planet when we die. To those of a similar age who also deferred reacting in good time and to those who continue to deny the reality of our legacy, I write more in sorrow than in anger, as I try to explain our delay and/or our denial.

Invisibility

Invisibility is indeed an important factor and has been touched on from various angles by subsequent thinkers. For example, Naomi Klein does so in This Changes Everything page 168): 

[Facile dismissal] is our relationship to much that we cannot easily see and it is a big part of what makes carbon pollution such a stubborn problem: we can’t see it, so we don’t really believe it exists. Ours is a culture of disavowal…’

Invisibility to the general public can take other subtler forms.

Keith Kahn-Harris (pages 96-97 in Denial: The Unspeakable Truth) quotes Gorman & Gorman Denying to the Grave page 13: ‘We are actually afraid of complexity . .’ 

He expands on this later quoting (page 140) from another source  (E A Jane and C Fleming Modern Conspiracy: the importance of being paranoid – pages 53-54): 

We live in an age in which the vast bulk of knowledge can only be accessed in mediated forms which rely on the testimony of various specialists. Contemporary approaches to epistemology, however, remain anchored in the intellectual ideals of the Enlightenment. These demand first-hand inquiry, independent thinking, and a scepticism about information passed down by authorities and experts. As such, we may find ourselves attempting to use an epistemological schema radically unsuited to a world whose staggering material complexity involves an unprecedented degree of specialisation and knowledge mediation.

So the priority we have been taught to value as lay-thinkers, on knowing at first hand, conflicts with the highly specialist nature of the complex evidence in support of climate change. Our complex brains have helped us build a complex civilisation with complex consequences which our short term primate habits of thought can’t even get close to understanding. It’s all too opaque for us to fully understand, so we back off in our bafflement, tempted to dismiss the whole idea as a fantasy.

I accept that all those factors play a part in the all-too-prevalent climate-change scepticism that hampers our attempts to take remedial action in time.

I’d like to step back now, and check out some other more basic thinking processes that play as great a part, in my view at least.

First off, we’re wired to find it too hard to digest a problem such as climate-change. Short-term thinking, as programmed by our primate brains, prevents us easily grasping the long-term impact of our behaviour. (For more on this see link). Keith Kahn-Harris latches on to this in part of his argument about invisibility, so we are close to the same issue here at a more basic level. He states (page 49): 

The process through which the burning of a barrel of oil results in a global rise in temperatures is not directly visible. The process through which smoking leads to cancer takes place over decades and unfolds differently between individuals.

I was a smoker at one time, as was Kahn-Harris. The immediate satisfaction of the nicotine hit, in the context of no immediate adverse effects, is all the evidence our more basic brain wiring needs to have to know for sure that it’s ok to carry on smoking. The more effortful task of investigating and digesting the evidence that it will probably kill us before our time makes no sense to our primate self. This is our default position most of the time (more on that in a moment). 

My experience in the NHS, dealing with local commissioners intensely concerned with balancing the books at the end of each financial year, illustrated for me that the same principles apply in more public sectors than my old smoking habit, which it took me six attempts at least to shake off.  Arguments in favour of preventative action, whose financial savings might take years to materialise, carried far less weight, in fact no weight at all most of the time, than the imperatives of coming in under budget in a few months  time. In such contexts we behave as though we are doctors giving a man who has broken his ankle a crutch rather than mending it with a splint, because a splint would be too expensive and he can get about well enough with the crutch.

How much worse this must obviously be with something as complex as climate change. 

Our Default Mode of Thinking

Before we leave the primate-brain problem, a few words from Daniel Kahneman will illustrate how pervasive it is. His contention in Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, on the basis of hard evidence and a lifetime’s exploration of the issue, is that we have two ways of thinking. The first, System One, is our default mode. It operates too glibly and too fast, as against more effortfully and more slowly, which makes the understanding of complex situations almost impossible. He writes (Kindle Reference 282): ‘associative memory, the core of System 1, continually constructs a coherent interpretation of what is going on in our world at any instant.’ It (KR340) ‘operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.’ System 1 is no good for long term problems or situations that are unfamiliar and inconsistent. It can lead to impulses and impressions that may be compelling but are also dangerously misleading. His conclusion about its limitations is (KR433): ‘System 1 has biases, however, systematic errors that it is prone to make in specified circumstances. . . . . it sometimes answers easier questions than the one it was asked, and it has little understanding of logic and statistics. One further limitation of System 1 is that it cannot be turned off.’

That doesn’t bode well, but there is an alternative. 

He describes System 2 as one that (KR340) ‘allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.’ He adds (KR375) ‘The highly diverse operations of System 2 have one feature in common: they require attention and are disrupted when attention is drawn away.’

He also contrasts it with the operation of System 1 and indicates how they can complement each other (KR423): ‘System 2 is activated when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains.’

He concludes (KR429): ‘In summary, most of what you (your System 2) think and do originates in your System 1, but System 2 takes over when things get difficult, and it normally has the last word.’

Kahneman regards System 2, powerful though flawed, as the best hope of good decision-making at our disposal.

The key problem here, though, seems to lie in the clause ‘when an event is detected that violates the model of the world that System 1 maintains.’ What we are seeing so far is that manmade climate change has not generated before now at least events that violate, strongly enough in enough of us, our System One models of reality. We’re therefore not prepared to invest enough effort in System Two thinking to change our position. 

Iain McGilchrist, in his searching analysis of the human mind The Master & his Emissary reaches disturbing conclusions of relevance here to the persistence of our blindly exploitative relationship with the natural world and the earth’s resources.

The conclusion he reaches, that matters most when we look at this issue, is on pages 228-229:

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . . .

There is a huge disadvantage for the right hemisphere here. If . . . knowledge has to be conveyed to someone else, it is in fact essential to be able to offer (apparent) certainties: to be able to repeat the process for the other person, build it up from the bits. That kind of knowledge can be handed on. . . . By contrast, passing on what the right hemisphere knows requires the other party already to have an understanding of it, which can be awakened in them. . .

On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, and perhaps also because it is more easily communicated than the subtle, nuanced, tentative, fluid and directly sensed approximation of reality that constitutes the right hemisphere experience, the left hemisphere view becomes the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships though are far better understood by the right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a rich morality, whereas the left hemisphere tends in its black and white world fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.

Personal Impact

This resistance may be changing and it is imperative that it does, as a Guardian interview with Katherine Hayhoe illustrates. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its 1.5C report in October. A month later, the US federal government’s climate assessment – to which Katharine Hayhoe contributed – came out. She feels that:

These assessments are important because there is a Schrödinger’s Cat element to studying climate impacts. The act of observing affects the outcome. If people aren’t aware of what is happening, why would anyone change? Assessments like these provide us with a vision of the future if we continue on our current pathway, and by doing so they address the most widespread and dangerous myth that the largest number of us have bought into: not that the science isn’t real, but rather that climate change doesn’t matter to me personally.

Since I jumped on this bandwagon a development has come to light that illustrates the drastic effect of climate change on me personally.  A Guardian article flagged this up. It was something of a shock to a seasoned coffee drinker such as myself:

If a future of relentless fires, droughts, superstorms and rising sea levels makes you feel like you need a strong caffeinated beverage, there is some bad news: climate change is coming for the world’s coffee beans.

Greg Meenahan, the partnership director at the non-profit institute World Coffee Research, puts it this way: “Demand for coffee is expected to double by the year 2050 and, if nothing is done, more than half of the world’s suitable coffee land will be pushed into unsuitability due to climate change. Without research and development, the coffee sector will need up to 180m more bags of coffee in 2050 than we are likely to have.

I’m sure every reader will resonate sympathetically to the horror of my impending predicament. ‘What is a life without coffee worth?’ I find myself asking.

Well, a lot more than the life without any of its necessities, as promised by a future of uncontrolled global warming. Given that the evidence is building to confirm this bleak view of our future, why are we still not doing enough? 

More of that next time.

Even though, unlike Hughes, I do not consider Plath as great a poet as Emily Dickinson, her poems about nature, such as The Bee Meeting and The Arrival of the Bee Box resonate more positively with me, so her work is not all bad. In such poems I am not repelled by too much intense self-centred negativity, or excessive fragmentation, and there’s some music too and an intelligible narrative. The closing lines of The Arrival of the Bee Box provide a brief illustration:

They might ignore me immediately
In my moon suit and funeral veil.
I am no source of honey
So why should they turn on me?
Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.

I suspect that these are neither her most admired nor her most well-known poems, which perhaps says something disturbing about our culture.

Back to the Darkness

However, her later darkly intense poems, as we considered last time, pose significant problems. Yes, she was in emotional pain, and to that extent deserves our compassion. However, the extreme intensity of that pain poured into her poetry and impacted strongly on others as we have seen. As she brought it into the public domain in this damaging way we are, I think, justified in trying to decide whether, first of all, that was a wise thing to do, and secondly whether that helped her create great poetry.

I have come to believe, as a result of these recent explorations, that her intense suffering was mostly of her own making, rather than inherent in the raw experience of her life: life brought some grit with it, certainly, but the massive boulder she got left with, that weighed so heavily on her shoulders, was largely the result of her escalating fabrications.

Deaths of the Poets

Perhaps she had been primed to escalate things in this way by her upbringing, as Anne Stevenson suggests in this quote from Farley and Roberts’ Deaths of Poets:[1]

You have to understand how very seriously Americans took themselves then. . . . You take yourself as an individual so seriously, you are the centre of the universe. You are brought up that way, competitively, to get to the top of the ladder, and then you discover it’s a bit dizzying up there! Then you run into personal troubles – somebody lets you down or betrays you – something you feel you can only remedy by this particular kind of vengeance against yourself.’

Nonetheless, escalate she did, for sure, and both her poetry and her life, in my view, paid a high price for that.

Her poetry may successfully express that kind of truth to personal experience, but is that enough to make a great poem? Or, does poetry have a duty to be more balanced and even to access higher and less partial truths? I think it does. I will try and explore now why I believe that to be true.

Haemorrhaging Hurt

When we read Myers speaking about what he refers to as genius[2] as ‘a subliminal uprush, an emergence into the current of ideas which the man is consciously manipulating of other ideas which he has not consciously originated, but which have shaped themselves beyond his will, in profounder regions of his being,’ it would seem to give warrant at first glance to the kind of disorganised intensity Plath all too often displays.

However, there is an important caveat. Myers is more cautious about Blake[3] whom he regards as an example of strong imagination insufficiently controlled by supraliminal discipline: ‘throughout all the work of William Blake we see the subliminal self flashing for moments into unity, then smouldering again in a lurid and scattered glow.’

This caveat applies particularly strongly when uprush sinks into venting negativity. This is where Hatcher, as we saw earlier. sheds useful light on the matter in his discussion of Hayden[4] when he states ‘it was never Hayden’s purpose to use his poetry to bleed on his pages or to condemn others’ and quotes Gwendolyn Brooks for a useful comparison:[5]

Brooks in her review described two sorts of poets – the one who ‘mixes with mud’ and writes in the midst of feeling, ‘his wounds like faucets above his page’, and a second sort of poet who ‘is amenable to a clarifying enchantment via the power of Art’, who has a ‘reverence for the word Art’, who, in effect, is more studied, more analytical. She goes on to say that while we need both sorts, Hayden is clearly the latter.

My sense is that maybe we do need both, but perhaps they are not of equal value.

Hatcher explains one possible reason why:[6]

[The Lion] . . . distinguishes between the unconscious self, in its primitive anger and uncontrolled raw emotions, and the conscious artist who enters the cage of self to control and channel that raw emotion and insight into intelligible pattern and form.

He quotes Wilburn Williams, Jr. in support[7] in his study of Angle of Ascent:

Hayden had the capacity to ‘Objectivise his own subjectivity. His private anguish never locks him into the sterile dead-end of solipsism; it impels him outward into the world.’

A good example of this ability is to be found in The Whipping. The poem starts from a perspective that suggests the poet is simply the observer.

The old woman across the way
is whipping the boy again
and shouting to the neighborhood
her goodness and his wrongs.

Wildly he crashes through elephant ears,
pleads in dusty zinnias,
while she in spite of crippling fat
pursues and corners him.

She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling
boy till the stick breaks
in her hand.  His tears are rainy weather
to woundlike memories:

Then it switches briefly to the first person, and we realise the poet was the boy who had been whipped:

My head gripped in bony vise
of knees, the writhing struggle
to wrench free, the blows, the fear
worse than blows that hateful

Words could bring, the face that I
no longer knew or loved . . .

Hayden comments:[8]

halfway through the fifth stanza, when the whipping is over, the poem shifts back to the third-person point of view. The effect, ostensibly a violation of narrative logic, is incredibly effective, implying among other things the poet can be objective in recounting his past until the scene recalls ‘woundlike memories’ and he instantly loses that analytical perspective.

Well, it is over now, it is over,
and the boy sobs in his room,

And the woman leans muttering against
a tree, exhausted, purged—
avenged in part for lifelong hidings
she has had to bear.

Even in describing an experience with his mother that is at least as painful if not more so than Plath’s with her father, not only does he not resort to the kind of blame-drenching histrionics she uses, but is also capable of stepping into his abusive mother’s shoes to share his sense that her ‘lifelong hidings’ explain, even if they do not excuse, her brutality.

Hayden also makes reference to the Holocaust in other poems, but they are clearly are justified by the extreme trauma of his own immediate history, as Hatcher explains:[9]

he sees in the concentration camp victims the faces of his childhood playmates and in the racism of South Africa’s apartheid and the violence of the Korean War evidence that the evils he has chronicled are neither finished nor peculiarly American.

The parallels between slavery and the Holocaust are not accidental because Hitler learned from the United States. This is part of John Fitzgerald Medina’s thesis, in his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology, where he describes how the founders of America managed to reconcile the rhetoric of their egalitarian constitution with profiting from both their virtual genocide of the Native Americans and from their practice of slavery, and how the Nazis derived part of their inspiration from this. Linking the two poetically is therefore completely valid, in this case, but not, I think, when there is no such correspondence as in Plath’s.

This section deals with possible reasons why, no matter how intensely the poet may feel something, that does not in itself, no matter how powerfully expressed it may be, justify the damage it might do or guarantee the poetry into which it is spilled will be great.

There is also another perhaps even more important consideration.

Maintaining a Balance between Light and Dark

Robert Hayden

Hatcher summarises this possibility at one point by quoting Hayden saying[10] ‘if there exists a “poetry of despair” and rejection, there is also a poetry that affirms the humane and spiritual,’ and goes on to explain that:[11]

It is appropriate, therefore, that while in over twenty poems Hayden used an image of night or darkness to represent this period [in human history], in only two is there no light, no glimmer of hope.

It is in an article he wrote for the Association of Bahá’í Studies in 1990 that Hatcher shares other useful insights on this issue. For example:[12]

Hayden is able to hint at the obstacle to this process [of realizing our essential oneness] that racism imposes, hint at the ultimate escape from the clutches of this evil, and yet refrain from becoming dogmatic, doctrinaire, or didactic. He manages to achieve this by employing symbols, by constructing a pattern of images, and by distributing the parts of this vision among many poems rather than by attempting to incorporate the entire thought into a single piece.

He isn’t blind to the darkness but manages to balance it with light:[13]

Therefore, while much of Hayden’s poetry seems focused on existential bewilderment, he also has abundant indices to a future condition in which humanity has been cleansed of prejudice and provincialism and has achieved a state of natural nobility.

Even so:[14]

For a number of reasons, among them being Hayden’s own personal groping to discover a sense of self, Hayden chose to focus more forcefully on enunciating the terror of transition than on basking in the joy of progress towards that long-awaited shore.

Nevertheless, rarely are even his most brutal poems without some hope, without an important sign or symbol of that future light shining in the darkness of our terror and despair.

In a sense he is voicing what many of us struggle to articulate:[15]

So it is that the voice in Hayden’s poetry often cries out in the midst of our collective labor, coaching our common pain, helping us enunciate our shared confusion and consternation even while pointing to the glimmer of the morning light in our present darkness. Perhaps he saw his function as artist to help us recognize how, like Arachne in his poem “Richard Hunt’s’ Arachne’,” all of us are caught in “the moment’s centrifuge of dying/ becoming,” our eyes “brimming with horrors/ of becoming,” our mouth shaping “a cry it cannot utter,”(Collected 113) and so he tries to utter it for us.

Hayden is not claiming the darkness is not terrifying at times – it’s just not all there is.

Ann Boyles, in her article in the Journal of Bahá’í Studies 1992, quotes Glaysher as being of essentially the same mind:[16]

In an article in World Order Magazine (“Re-Centering’-’ 9-17), Frederick Glaysher points out that in a world where the “center” has been lost, a world where chaos reigns and where few people see divine order, Robert Hayden’s poems seek to re-establish that center (at least in the literary world) and to give the chaos some meaning.

She concludes that[17] ‘The presence and form of both anguish and anodyne reflect the two-edged nature of the dream. One sees the same dualism elsewhere in Hayden, as in the “deathbed childbed age” (1.10) of “Words in the Mourning Time.” In this dualism Hayden consistently transcends the negative in favour of a view that strives towards hope.’

In the problematic later poems of Plath I feel there is a surfeit of anguish and an absence of anodyne, and for that reason also they forfeit the hallmark of great poetry, despite their many admirers.

My final verdict?

Her sense of identity and self was anything but positive and secure, the root I feel of the exaggerated martyrdom of her late poetry. We ended up not looking at where the truth about her life lies amongst the conflicting reports, but what is the relationship between her poetry and truth, something that has possibly fed a false image of the person. She became an icon because many women have suffered as intensely as she claims to have done, but we have to recognize nonetheless that in terms of her life her later poetry is self dramatizing and to that degree inauthentic, filled with many untrustworthy and potentially offensive hyperboles.

This caused Perloff to question the value of Plath’s poetry:[18]

Any reader can compile his own list . . . of lines that often look like first drafts of the Ariel poems, and one begins to wonder whether Sylvia Plath is really the major writer Alvarez describes, or whether she is not perhaps an extraordinarily gifted minor poet, whose lyric intensity seemed more impressive when we encountered it in the slim and rigorously selected Ariel than when we view it in the new perspective afforded by the publication of her uncollected poems.

I think I need to clarify here that I do not accept the idea of solving for the unknown, that Hayden borrowed from Auden, as the recipe for all great poetry. Poetry has other other equally valid consciousness raising potentials, one of which, for me at least, concerns expanding our compass of compassion.

So, I have to ask myself at this point, does Plath’s poetry help us do that?

My answer to that so far is ‘No.’ She seems to present her state of mind as though it is all that matters. All too often, her level of vindictive self-justification, which disproportionately denigrates others, constricts rather than expands our empathy. She tries to draw us into her toxic perspective.

As we saw in The Whipping, Hayden transcends the limitations of his own perspective, lifting his poem to a higher level of understanding, which in turn enhances our level of consciousness.

The most that Plath’s later more unbalanced poems do is shed light on the workings of a deeply disturbed sensibility. To the extent that they tempt others to join her, they are potentially dangerous: to the extent that they help some of us understand her state of mind more deeply, they are useful. But their use seems clinical rather than poetic.

Emily Dickinson’s poems provide powerful and mind-expanding examples of what even a relatively subjective approach can achieve, strongly suggesting why she is the greater poet and why intensity is not always bad. A poem of hers I flagged up in advance is a good illustration of this.

Emily Dickinson

Afterthoughts

Her sense of identity and self was anything but positive and secure, the root I feel of the exaggerated martyrdom of her late poetry. We ended up not looking at where the truth about her life lies amongst the conflicting reports, but what is the relationship between her poetry and truth, something that has possibly fed a false image of the person. She became an icon because many women have suffered as intensely as she claims to have done, but we have to recognize nonetheless that in terms of her life her later poetry is self dramatizing and to that degree inauthentic, filled with many untrustworthy and potentially offensive hyperboles.

This caused Perloff to question the value of Plath’s poetry:[18]

Any reader can compile his own list . . . of lines that often look like first drafts of the Ariel poems, and one begins to wonder whether Sylvia Plath is really the major writer Alvarez describes, or whether she is not perhaps an extraordinarily gifted minor poet, whose lyric intensity seemed more impressive when we encountered it in the slim and rigorously selected Ariel than when we view it in the new perspective afforded by the publication of her uncollected poems.

In all fairness, as a closing comment, I have to admit that, for the most part, stylistically Hayden’s poetry does not resonate with me anywhere near as strongly as Mew’s or Dickinson’s, though he was a valuable equally modernist lens through which to examine Plath’s work. I’m out of tune with most modernity, including the mysteriously popular Clarice Cliff and her gaudy pottery abstractions. I was going to say far more about Mew in this sequence but it has gone on for far too long already so will just include these links to my posts about her.

There are moments of more positive resonance in modern poetry. Revisiting MacNeice’s Autumn Journal recently reminded me of its brilliance in capturing the flow of experience in places. There was a similar flow to Mew along with a perspective resonant with Hayden’s American Journal (the echo in the titles is, I suspect, accidental). Both are acting in a way as visitors from another planet capturing our days. Both fit better with my taste, than Hayden’s supposed masterpiece The Middle Passage, even though in the opinion of Christopher Buck and Derik Smith in their article in Oxford Research Encyclopaedia it was:[19]

Arguably his greatest masterpiece, [and] required considerable research on slavery, which Hayden did at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Collection in Harlem during the summer of 1941.

It also proved, in their view, significantly influential: ‘Hayden’s method, which involved diving into the historical archive to bring to life a record of the past that had been marginalized and suppressed, has proven paradigmatic for many history-minded poets of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.’

I feel we are in desperate need of a poetry that is more accessible, capable of reaching more people in an inspiring and mind-expanding fashion. Hatcher seems to favour poems that require great effort to understand. Is there a danger, when poetry becomes too esoteric and therefore by implication elitist, it will become increasingly side-lined, comparable to when the pared back fragmentation of modernism, in my view, destroys the music as well as the meaning of a poem.

Time to stop now – my ruminations on this will continue until my dying day, I expect, but I can’t criticise Plath for endlessly spilling her subjectivity across the page and then do the same thing myself.

References:

[1]. Deaths of Poets – page 263.
[2]. Irreducible Mind – page 426.
[3]. Op. cit. – page 445.
[4]. From the Auroral Darkness – page 26.
[5]. Op. cit. – page 82).
[6]. Op. cit. – page 112).
[7]. Op. cit. – page 256).
[8]. Op. cit. – page 260.
[9]. Op. cit. – page 121).
[10]. Op. cit. – page 252.
[11]. Op. cit. – page 277.
[12]. Racial Identity and the Patterns of Consolation in the Poetry of Robert Hayden – page 40.
[13]. Op. cit. – page 42.
[14]. Op. cit. – page 43.
[15]. Op. cit. – page 46.
[16] “Angle of Ascent”, The: Process and Achievement in the Work of Robert Hayden – page 5.
[17] Op. cit. – page 14.
[18] http://marjorieperloff.blog/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Chap-17-Perloff.pdf – page 588.
[19] Oxford Research Encyclopaedia – page 7.

The artist’s inborn talents, developed abilities, innate and acquired qualities of character, personal inclinations, and the degree of spiritual maturity obtained at a given point in . . . life, along with the characteristics [they] may have assimilated from [the] national culture, [the] local culture, and the surrounding geography and climate – all such factors combine to guarantee a dazzling and most attractive diversity in artistic self-expression.

(Ludwig Tuman Mirror of the Divine – page 118)

The Mad Woman in the AtticIt seemed logical to follow on from the republished sequence on Emily Dickinson, with this one.

I was complacently reading my way through The Mad Woman in the Attic in pleasant anticipation of my moments with Middlemarch as the high spot of their analysis of women writers in Victorian England, when my worldview was overturned. I was going to have another Mansfield Park and Daniel Deronda experience, possibly on a larger scale.

The final chapters of this uneven but brilliant book deal with poetry.

I already knew that, in so far as when I had bought the book I had read the final chapter on Emily Dickinson with some interest. What I had not expected was to be blown away by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the penultimate chapter I had previously vaulted over. After all I’d read all her good stuff, hadn’t I? Sonnets from the Portuguese especially was the critics’ favourite, and mine till now perhaps. As a lover of Robert Browning’s poetry, I also knew enough about her life to realize she’d never attempted anything as ambitious as his The Ring & the Book, had she?

How wrong could I be?

Aurora LeighAurora Leigh

Gilbert and Gubar flagged up Aurora Leigh after a lengthy consideration of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market. They describe it as Barrett Browning’s ‘masterpiece’ (page 575), going on to explain why:

It is so much better than most of its nonreaders realize, but also because it embodies what may well have been the most reasonable compromise between assertion and submission that a sane and worldly woman poet could achieve in the nineteenth century.

Along the path of their relatively brief exploration of this poem, there were small gems of insight quoted that rang bells for me, but not dramatically as yet. They quote her as writing (page 577) ‘Art is much; but love is more,’ and ‘Art’s a service.’

They clarify that the story she tells in blank verse concludes with what seems to be (page 579) ‘a perfect compromise between the docility required by Victorian marriage and the energy demanded by poetry.’ They describe how Barrett Browning places her transformative vision in the male character’s mouth so as to make it more acceptable to her Victorian readership (ibid):

Part of this poet’s compromise consists in her diplomatic recognition that Victorian readers may be more likely to accept millenarian utterances from a male character.

It is only when they quote this millenarian vision that the full import of this poem struck me with full force:

                                                       The world’s old,
But the old world waits the time to be renewed,
Toward which, new hearts in individual growth
Must quicken, and increase to multitude
In new dynasties of the race of men;
Developed whence, shall grow spontaneously
New churches, new economies, new laws
Admitting freedom, new societies
Excluding falsehood: He shall make all new.

And, as I discovered via Wikipedia, it’s divided into nine books. Nine! A very special number for Bahá’ís!

‘I have to buy this book,’ I thought, and immediately found a Norton annotated edition on the web which I decided to order via my local Waterstones on the following Monday (this all happened too late on Saturday to dash down and do it straightaway, and ordering on the web forfeits the stamps on my loyalty card).

Patience! Patience!

Before I take this further I need to share the next sequence of events.

What made it even more amazing was that, having decided to buy a copy as soon as possible, the following day, the Sunday, my wife and I visited a National Trust property — Berrington Hall — and, after wandering the grounds and having a cup of coffee, we finally found the second hand bookshop there, which my wife was encouraging me to look into in case they had the book. I thought the chance of that was so very slim I nearly didn’t bother.

But I was amazed to find at the second attempt, after nearly leaving the shop, a slim copy of the book tucked away on the next-to-bottom shelf of the last stack. How weird and unlikely is that, for such a little known and not very popular book!

IMG_4107

It wasn’t the exact edition I wanted, which I still might buy for the notes and letters it contains, but for the price of £1 how could I possibly resist? It seemed to confirm my own strong feeling that I was meant to read it.

Just in case it seems as though this enthusiasm is a misguided response to one pair of critics, I’ll end with a quote or two from the introduction to my newly acquired and priceless one pound purchase. Cora Kaplan writes (page 11):

In spite of its conventional happy ending it is possible to see it as contributing to a feminist theory of art which argues that women’s language, precisely because it has been suppressed by patriarchal societies, re-enters discourse with a shattering revolutionary force, speaking all that is repressed and forbidden in human experience.

In terms of the plot of the poem as she sees it, the blinding of the main male character, after the manner of Rochester in Jane Eyre (page 24), ‘simultaneously robs him of his “manly” image and his masculine, mechanical projects for social improvement.’ Shades of McGilchrist here again.

Kaplan also clinches the idea explored by Gilbert and Gubar, that Barrett Browning goes a long way towards integrating male power with feminine sensitivity by quoting approvingly her lines (page 27):

                                   Either sex alone
Is half itself and in true marriage lies
Nor equal nor unequal: each fulfils
Defects in each…

While she feels the poem is weak in the way it deals with the issues of class, she endorses its great value (page 35):

. . . [F]or all its difficulties the poem remains radical and rupturing, a major confrontation of patriarchal attitudes unique in the imaginative literature of its day.

One critic sourly complained that it was 2000 lines longer than Paradise Lost. So, it is clearly a work that merits comparison with the lengthy masterpiece her husband wrote in his grief after her death.

And this view was reinforced, in my opinion, as I read through the poem and found many passages such as this one, which confirms that Barrett Browning was firmly behind the view that art should balance the material with the spiritual (Book 7, lines 763-769):

                                         Natural things
And spiritual,—who separates those two
In art, in morals, or the social drift
Tears up the bond of nature and brings death,
Paints futile pictures, writes unreal verse,
Leads vulgar days, deals ignorantly with men,
Is wrong, in short, at all points.

As it stands at this point, although I feel my high regard for George Eliot’s work, most especially Middlemarch, is completely justified, I clearly have failed to give due consideration to a major poet, someone I have so far dismissed as a minor artist working on a miniature scale, somewhere below Jane Austen’s ironical description of her own work as ‘the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush.’

Time to remedy that, I feel.

I’ll pause at this point having marshaled at least some evidence that the feminine mindset probably does have the capacity to create a more balanced portrait of reality both in prose and in poetry than has so far come easily to men in our machine-minded left-brain culture.

And just to prove that the spirit of Barrett Browning is by no means dead, and was not just carried briefly albeit powerfully by the likes of Sylvia Plath, I’ve just read these words in Gillian Clarke’s Collected Poems (page 49):

        Our airing cupboards
are full of our satisfactions.

The gulls grieve at our contentment.
It is a masculine question.
‘Where,’ they call ‘are your great works?’