At the start of the fall semester, Oakland University is hosting Nobel Peace Prize-winning climate scientist Henry Pollack, who recently wrote World Without Ice (foreword by Al Gore). His book describes the various ways humankind has been shaped by ice— which forms mountains, regulates temperatures, affects ocean currents, and even defines where humans live— and what will can expect will happen as the ice melts as a result of global warming. Pollack will be here at Oakland University to discuss his new book, as well as the artistic and musical collaboration inspired by the book. For more on the installation at OU, check out this link: https://oakland.edu/cas/events/2017/090517-world-without-ice-art-installation). He’s also giving an opening lecture followed by a Q&A on Sept. 5th (https://oakland.edu/cas/events/2017/090517-world-without-ice-opening-lecture-and-qa-with-henry-pollack)
When I heard about this, I thought: Wow. How do you make an art installation about global warming? Pollack collaborated with musicians, composers, and artists to create a multimedia installation focused on evoking the precariousness of our current moment in global history. It’s described as “Part science, part music, part art… a groundbreaking, thought-provoking and compelling multisensory experience focusing on Earth’s changing climate.” I’m really looking forward to the talk and the exhibition.
I’m partly excited for selfish reasons: I’ve been working on a book of poems about predictions of apocalypse throughout history, climate change, and the specific circumstances of species extinction. It has been a real challenge figuring out how to write about these topics without the tone being overly moralizing, aggrieved, or just, well, flat, so I’m always eager to see what other artists are doing. I feel mournful when I read and think about, for example, sea level rise, glaciers melting, or the fact that the last Atlas lion was shot by a hunter on a mountain for which the lion was named. How to make art about these things in a way that starts, rather than shuts down, conversation? How to have nuance and dimensionality in your approach? One thing I’ve tried is to write around the topic — circumventing direct speech — but considering my young son and daughter. Children take the world for granted in a wonderful way: full of cheerful greed, their love and enthusiasm for all manner experiences and things has been profoundly interesting to me as a poet (as has my son’s remarkable turns of phrase, some of which I’ve outright stolen. My daughter’s not yet talking).
Another way I write around the topic is to think about the Romantic poets, how they would have faced our our current situation. Wordsworth believed that to envelope oneself in the nature was to facilitate a return to the childhood self— and the child, he said, is father to the man. That idea of his is often quoted and about as often puzzled over: is he saying that the child has wisdom that may be passed on to man.? Or perhaps, we only can become adult by passing through (being fathered by) childhood?
What he was clear about is his idea that the only way to return to that playful, innocent, open childhood self once we have aged out of childhood is to leave the hustle and bustle of industry and city life and return to nature. But what to do when nature itself succumbs under the wave of industry and capital?
I look forward to hearing about Pollack’s process as he translated the ideas of World Without Ice into art and music. I wonder what various strengths and weaknesses each art form offers when it comes to social and political comment. Like, pop music is great because it reaches a lot of people, and can energize you and believe you can become something other than what you are. Films and plays have the advantage of inviting you to identify with characters, good and bad. Maybe poetry is helpful because it requires one to appreciate the nuances of language and argument.
Strangely I have found one of the most useful things is to remember that ultimately, W.H. Auden is probably right: poetry makes nothing happen. Maybe it would even be foolish to even briefly entertain the belief that a poem (or let’s be clear: a poem of mine) could change someone’s mind, or start a conversation, or alleviate pain or suffering. But maybe that’s all right. As I wrote about in an earlier blog piece, Auden continued: poetry survives. It is a witness, a voice. So I watch, and read. I put what I see and learn into poems. I am a glorified curator of tragic facts and that must suffice.
– Prof. Alison Powell