Can Poetry Help us Articulate the Universal as Personal?

Victoria Inyang-Talbot

As the spotlight lands firmly on the upcoming COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, I have reached into my poetry collection and dwelt a little on the poems that tell stories of my relationship with the world around me. John Clare’s All Nature Has A Feeling could not resonate more. We are grappling with the day-to-day questions of living – reaching that potential, negotiating relationships, dreams, disappointments, hope. We are, even as we react to issues of environmental crisis, going about our lives, striving, failing, succeeding, defining who we are, as if the fight is out there, apart from our identities.

But who are we?

Lucille Clifton’s Earth Is A Living Thing speaks to the interconnected that is never denied but when asked to define ourselves, we do so in terms of our characteristics – gender, race, age, occupation etc. We name our origins, proclivities, we create boundaries, extend them (binary, non-binary) and some of us are comfortable enough to say that we are not yet sure. Are we everything but the world around us? We tell the stories of our lives around events that are personal to us – a birth, divorce, leaving home, falling in love, bereavement. That these stories have parallels in our non-human world, we often forget to illustrate – new home = another housing estate, another child = more cabbages etc.

Poetry imagines these liminal spaces and the interdependence therein. In Robert Hayden’s A Plague of Starlings, the plight of the culled starlings is juxtaposed with our own ambitions for ourselves:

Their scissoring
terror like glass
coins spilling breaking

And if not careful
I shall tread
upon carcasses
carcasses when I
go mornings now
to lecture …

Carl Phillips’ White Dog calls us to let go, to resist the urge to own more and more of what belongs to the non-human world. To share the earth, as if we too belong here. To see it as a partnership, not a competition, in owning it or caring for it. W. S. Merwin’s To Ashes is a poem that checks our attitude to our environment as the other – to be pitied, fought for. For after all, we are the same, human and non-human, in origin and in end.

In poetry, we can articulate these imaginings – of our lives and that of our non-human world as one ecology. In acknowledgement I write of a flower:

Keep time with me
You blue haven.
Cupped in yourself,
Unencumbered today, I remember
When the May sun unfurled your petals, and you peak through a smile
And the rest of the pot beheld your evocative entrance
And I clapped in glee.
Keep time with me
And when it’s autumn and the wind howls
I’ll remember for you, your tropical home.

The next time you witness a crocus in May, might you write a haiku?

Victoria is a PhD student and a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the dept of Education at Edge Hill University. To hear more of her poems, join us on Wednesday 3rd November at 5pm for the Sustainatiliby Festival event, “How can poetry support our articulation of our relationship with our non-human world?”

Sustainability, Climate Change and ‘Disruption’

Prof Christopher Dent

Disruption. It can take many forms. It can come suddenly and unexpectedly, like an un-forecasted storm or major crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic. We may see it is coming, such as the planned transport workers strike in Glasgow during the COP26 Climate Summit. Or it may be a gradual process, like the ‘disruptive’ changes that social media technologies have made to how we communicate and relate to one another.

We generally do not like disruption. It causes problems, uncertainty, risk and a loss of control. But disruption can also challenge us in positive ways. It can make us sit up and think, awaken us to take things more seriously that deserve our attention, or present common opportunities to make the world a better place.

The University’s Sustainability Festival is taking place from Monday 1st to Friday 5th November, and it aims to disrupt!

Like the COP26 Climate Summit also starting at the same time, we want to bring about significant change, disrupt in the way we think, act, and behave; to have a real and positive impact on our lives, and those around us.

There is a big debate in sustainability studies about how we can realistically achieve real change in our society and economy, to make them both more sustainable.

There are those who advocate a gradual, pragmatic approach. This entails adapting current practices and systems in steady, incremental ways; taking existing approaches and ways of doing things and simply making them more sustainable, for example, replacing economic growth with the pursuit of ‘green growth’. Instead of mass-producing fossil fuel powered cars we mass-produce electric vehicles and so on. The UK government’s ‘Ten Point Plan’ to achieve its net zero emissions goal by 2050 is largely based on this gradual approach, sometimes referred to as ‘ecological modernisation’. But will this be enough to avoid a climate catastrophe?

Other sustainability theorists are more radical and revolutionary in approach, arguing for more profound disruptive change. Yes, electric vehicles are needed but a more radical approach would be to have far fewer vehicles in our society through the use of technology and a cultural shift of attitudes on car ownership. This approach makes the case for paradigm changes in humanity’s relationship with the planet and its resources. It contends that the greening of ‘business as usual’ is not sufficient, and that we need to ‘disrupt’ what we currently are doing if humans are to survive into the 22nd century, and beyond. Otherwise, we may find various kinds of environmental collapse will come to increasingly disrupt us, and our unsustainable lives.

Come to the Sustainability Festival and entertain the possibility of it ‘disrupting’ you… for good!

DAY THEMES – click on the images below to find out what is happening on each day of the Festival:

Professor Christopher Dent is the Chair of the Sustainability Festival organising committee and the Director of SustainNET.

The Sustainability Festival is coming… be prepared to connect, engage and be inspired.

Prof Christopher Dent

The University’s Sustainability Festival – taking place Monday 1 to Friday 5 November – is a chance for everyone at Edge Hill and beyond to come together to feel part of a collective of people that want to make our world a better, more sustainable place.

It coincides with the first week of the COP26 Climate Summit the UK is hosting in Glasgow, and the Sustainability Festival is organised over five Day Themes, such as ‘Move it Monday’ (special focus on transport and mobility).

Across all five Festival days there are six ‘Activity Themes’:

  • Community – local organisations showcasing their sustainability focused work, mainly in The Hub building
  • Tours – various tours organised around Edge Hill’s beautiful green campus. Bike rides, get to know our campus’ wildlife and eco-buildings and systems, and an opportunity to plant flowers and shrubs in Edge Hill’s wonderful garden spots!
  • Performances – artistic inspiration on sustainability. We have various performance events planned – films, poetry, dance, drama and an art exhibition
  • Talks– something for everyone, covering different everyday sustainability issues such as recycling and energy. We also have fast rising media personality and former EHU student Joshua Styles giving a talk on plants on ‘Footprint Friday’ (5 Nov)
  • Food-Drink-Shopping – we have a number of food, drink and other sustainable product organisations coming onto campus to show how we can become more sustainable consumers
  • Competitions– these will be running all week on sustainability-related themes. Look out for updates on the Festival website. There are prizes to be won!

SustainNET has been the main driving force behind the Festival. Established in February 2020 under the Institute for Social Responsibility (ISR) umbrella, it is a network community of Edge Hill University staff seeking to advance the sustainability agenda on four main fronts: research, teaching and learning, student engagement and our local community with 30 local organisation partners.

As part of the Festival organisation, I was asked how I would define sustainability… I responded “Very carefully, as there are dozens of definitions out there”! The definition I prefer is the capacity for human civilisation and planet Earth’s biosphere to co-exist into the foreseeable future.

While this definition has an explicit environmental dimension, it also concerns how humans get on with each other, inferring a societal dimension. If there is peace, harmony and justice within human society, human civilisation is more likely to attain environmental peace, harmony and justice. Developing healthier and more sustainable food systems for example, will help us mitigate climate change and address local environmental issues.

We hope the Festival will help people see and understand various kinds of inter-connections that exist regarding sustainability, as well as connecting with each other. Come along to the Festival – engage and be inspired to look at our world and society in different ways. It will be great to see you there.

Christopher Dent is a Professor of International Business and Economics in the Business School and Director: SustainNET. Please get in contact with him if you wish to be part of the Festival or become a SustainNET Member – details on becoming a Member this can be found here.