The work of building community is one answer to what poetry offers us in a time of crisis - or a time of crises, global and local, political and ecological. But there are other ways of community building that might seem a more direct response, such as the sort of climate action group I'm also taking part in (even if that ends up with a bit more of a focus on the poetics of submission writing than might be strictly justified - how happy we were to get "woefully" into our submission on the climate emissions budget!). What lyric poetry offers is one very particular and very strange answer to the problem of scale that has been identified by many scholars and activists as crucial to the global crises facing us and the climate change crisis in particular. Climate change is speeding up so fast it no longer seems quite so much a problem of imagining the closeness of a crisis a hundred years, fifty, into the future but still the effects of any individual action are so removed from the moment in which it takes place and we are experiencing now the effects of actions taken fifty, a hundred years ago, while government set targets for changes to be made by 2030, 2040, 2050, doing little even towards reaching these goals in their own term in power. And the actions that need to be taken are so large-scale and so systematic that any individual is largely helpless to effect any meaningful change, recycle our plastics though we do. While we plant a dozen trees in the local reserve, acres of ancient forests are burning across the globe. So we have a crisis of scale in terms of time and in terms of human reach, the numbers of people involved. And this is exactly what distinguishes lyric poetry, its strange and paradoxical valency of address, its strange and paradoxical command of scale, in terms of both time and human reach. A lyric poem - charged with feeling, structured around address - offers the most intimate, minute form of communication, more intimate even than one person speaking to another person in a room. Reading a poem, there is no distance between the writer and the reader - the reader reads as if they had written the poem themselves, and as if the poet is speaking directly to them. At the same time, a poem has infinite reach - anyone can read it anywhere, across the world and across time. Poems written two thousand years ago speak with an immediacy now, poems written now will be read in the present tense of whatever times are ahead of us still. I was talking over these ideas with Robert Sullivan, who was the one who introduced the term valency into the conversation. In chemistry, valency refers to the combining capacity of any one atom or group of atom - it is a term that equates power with the capacity for relationship. I was thinking about all these things when I started reading the latest issue of Starling - the literary journal for writers under the age of 25 created and edited by Francis Cooke and Louise Wallace and an extraordinary example of community building. The first poem in the journal is the beautiful "Excavation" by Sofia Drew, which brings together the different time scales by which we live, opening with her wishes, as a seven year old, for her own future as the adult she imagined herself to be. She describes herself as belonging to "the nostalgic generation" whose looking backwards extends beyond childhood to claim the palaeocene as their favourite time, and she looks ahead beyond her own adulthood to a future "already buried in sediment": in this future, "my favourite fossil is this: / me, moon-face, grainy, grinning / I’m overexposed / left too long in the tungsten glow of / still believing in everything." It is a beautiful example of lyric scale, and lyric wishing - about which I also have more to say, and more to think, perhaps in another post.
These are paragraphs without essays or books to go in.