Aesthetic Forms of Climate Change

Student post by Hannah Mae Atherton.

This panel was composed of Christopher Nealon (John Hopkins University), Jennifer Chang (George Washington University), Mark McMorris (Georgetown University), Juliana Spahr (Mills College), and Seth Perlow (Georgetown University). The opening question panel was: “What is the shape of climate change knowledge” in relation to aesthetic forms, in particular the genre of the lyric. Each panelist was allotted 20 minutes to respond to this question—with exception of Seth Perlow, who was the respondent at the end of the panel—and each did so in a unique fashion.

Christopher Nealon responded by reading from his new chapbook, The Victorious Ones. Unfortunately, there is currently no online version of the poem, but I highly recommend buying the chapbook. His poem had many elements, but there were two aspects of it that really struck me. He had a refrain in the poem that was repeated twice: “There’s a river running backwards throughout this poem.” This line was enchanting not only because of its lyrical quality (which was intensified as this was performed orally) but also because of the way it framed the idea of climate change knowledge. The idea of the river running backwards relates to the transience of time and the nonhuman world. Another aspect of his performance that struck me was the intertextuality of the poem—he makes references to The Salt Eaters, Peter Culley, and a variety of other people/texts—and the idea of poetry as invocation.

Jennifer Chang began her talk by mentioning the “Zanesville Zoo Massacre” which led into a discussion about pastoral cataclysm. According to Chang, pastoral poetry is not simply nature poetry—it is poetry about identity. Pastoral poetry is about place making, identity finding; it’s where place and person meet in mutual fulfillment. It also outlines a failure about talking about the Anthropocene because we so often retreat into the human rather than this mutual fulfilment that she spoke of. Her closing statements asked us to think about how we can mold the lyric format into a less anthropocentric format: why do we accuse cats of what they can’t help but be? She also mentioned freedom and suggested that “freedom cannot exist if someone does not belong in the ecology of the place.”

Mark McMorris spoke of a poetry of epoch, and argued that poetry should be of a time and place. He close-read a moment of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poem “A Cloud in Trousers,” noting the lines “I spit on the fact / that neither Homer nor Ovid / invented characters like us, / pock-marked with soot.” He spoke of the line “I spit” as conveying contempt, but a line that performs a kind of modernity. He also talked about the difference of lyric poetry in the 1930s versus contemporary lyric poetry, and how writers need to recalibrate the mode of the lyric to “court nostalgia.” Echoing Chang, McMorris suggested that poetry should be of its time, and as we are in the midst of the Anthropocene, we should recalibrate the lyric genre to explore this new moment.

Juliana Spahr spoke about anthologizing the Anthropocene, and specifically mentioned The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral. One of the most notable remarks she gave to bookend the panel was that there is an ecopoetry ecosystem: “We’ll save what’s in our poetry,” she noted. Her statement meant that nonhumans like dogs, cats, a tree here and a blade of grass there will survive (since we continue to talk about them) but not the more minute objects in the nonhuman world—or the areas that don’t seem of poetic importance. Perhaps to write an effective lyric in the shape of the Anthropocene we have to focus more on the minute objects.

Seth Perlow ended the talk with a short response, noting that the lyric as a genre is often a temporal mode because it invokes the present. According to Perlow, we need to write and interpret poetry that exceeds the individual, and asked us to think about the scale of the Anthropocene in a way that makes sense to the common man in light of the scale. Does the lyric equip us to talk about the scale of the Anthropocene? Perhaps not. But he called us to recognize the climatological impact of a poem. The panel ended with a short Q&A, which included questions of representation versus presentation, how to inhabit two modes of poetry at once (confusion and longing), and how to think of pastoral in contemporary culture (can Petco be considered pastoral?).

Hannah Mae Atherton is a second-year Master’s student in English Literature at Georgetown University. Her research focuses on the environmental consciousness present in cyborg and posthuman figures in contemporary literature.


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