by John Wedgwood Clarke
John Wedgwood Clarke was born in St Ives, Cornwall in 1969. He trained as an actor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, before going on to study literature and completing a D.Phil. in Modernist poetry at the University of York. He set up the Beverley Literature and Bridlington Poetry Festivals, and ran them for ten years, before leaving to pursue a full-time career in writing and editing, as well as teaching Creative Writing at the University of Hull, and more recently at the University of Exeter. His debut pamphlet Sea Swim was published by Valley Press in April 2012, the result of an invigorating artistic initiative described by Carol Ann Duffy as ‘a simple and simply beautiful idea.’ September 2013 saw the publication of John’s highly-acclaimed first full-length collection, Ghost Pot, which featured scenery and wildlife from the North Yorkshire coast. In June 2014, John’s series of poems inspired by the snickets, passageways, courts and yards of York were published in a pamphlet titled In Between, and appeared on the walls of the city as part of the York Curiouser festival. His second full-length collection of poetry, titled Landfill, was mostly inspired by a residency at Scarborough’s dump, and was published in September 2017.
What is the ecological object our eco-poems should seek to address? A polar bear, a river, an ecosystem, plastic particulates, environmental legislation, the great transhumance of the school run? What do we classify as nature? And if we’ve challenged that old, persistent idea that we’re separate from the natural world, which exists somewhere else, over there, at the weekend, in the holidays, in a national park, what next? Are houses nature in the same way that a nest is nature? Is pollution that alters the genes that govern the respiratory uptake of oxygen by fish also part of nature, part of the laying-waste consequent on our self-gratifying compulsions? Can I take a high-minded tone when I’m so implicated? Is climate change natural? Are these words and the poems I try to write, that seek to address and be altered by the ever-evolving otherness of the living things and non-living things around me, also nature, part of my animal song.
The more I try, the more I realise I can’t get out of myself. And would I want to? Would I want ecologically-engaged poetry to be apart from the politics of Brexit and the deodorant a man sprayed all over himself at the swimming pool for about five seconds making me cough – what compelled him to do that? All so much rambling. So much rubbish. Or not. The philosopher Bruno Latour might call this ‘social pollution’—in these instances the political discourse of sovereignty and body-aesthetics — that we must recognise as shaping every living thing around us. We cannot know nature free of us. We stink and leave our traces everywhere. We cannot step clear of an ecosystem we express even as we pretend otherwise. We’re in things and they’re in us. A eco-poem should know this. The line between our species and nature has gone. A poem might moulder its subject, shooting out its filaments of mycelium until it fruits. Or be a ‘vegetable growth’ as Mandelstam would have it: the poem as organism, as verbal embodiment of a complex, self-regulating system that sucks in nutrients from soils impregnated with Round-Up, micro-plastics and the astonishing sex-lives of worms – how in earth do those worms find each other? What chemicals do they speak with? The ground opens into the poem and utters it differently. Difference flowers — or no flowers.
Watch out for the wild. Where is it? Is it where there are no people, or is it at the waste-recycling facility and the landfill site? If you’re riddled with questions and want to find a way from the moment by moment emotional life you live within to the processes we’ve set in motion that shape those moments, that make the shape of our lives seem as ineluctable as a missed turn-off on a motorway, then maybe you’re thinking in a way that might inform an ecologically-engaged poem. I found the idea of ‘non-predatory writing’, or writing that is aware of our desire to make everything bear the sign of our ego-concentric concerns, a compelling one. But how can we step out of this use of the world as an emotional mirror, a vehicle for our self-expression, when so often we speak through images and things? Perhaps we need to accept that there is a negotiation to be conducted between our use of the world to make us strange to ourselves, psychically complex, to renew wonder, and our pursuit of the evolving otherness of the species, biomes and ecosystems with which we are fundamentally connected.
It may be useful to think, when writing, in terms of the ‘edge-effect’, or the ‘ecotone’, the poem as a place of meetings and transitions between things and ideas, between all these questions and their hinterlands: a place where we can know this linguistic position we refer to as ourselves as in-the-world, evolving with it moment by moment, altering and being altered. Poetry can take liberties with language, make us say ourselves differently, disrupt our habitual thought patterns; it may spill difficult-to-contain loads of meaning across the motorway of progress to make us halt in our voices and stop saying if only we could get away to the country more, that lake, those woods, if only.
Look to your pedal bin. Look between the cracks in your back yard at the lovely powdery granules of earth piled up by the worker ants and the seething fat bodies of the young queens on flying day—that’s one wild patio. The white deflating orange is wild. How on earth did all this stuff get in my fridge? Who laid the concrete over the ants? Questions, questions. A ceaseless uncertainty figured in song that listens to itself and names the differences and as it does so attends to the remarkable sounds that, as Denise Riley puts it so beautifully, are ‘fat with history’. We cannot pretend that rich history away, or cleanse the world of ‘social pollution’ and step into a pure language of things. We must listen to the way this language, as we often use it, is repeating us towards ecological disaster for our species — not, of course the planet, which will happily shrug us off and continue, registering us only as fossils within an extinction boundary marked by toxic sediments and titanium rectangles with apple bites taken out of them. What knowledge we have had—and may have.
Poetry can be a rotten stinking heap of glory in the shopping centre of late capitalism. Who will read the runic trash, the collapsing material of brands? Poetry can be an unsettling place through which to begin thinking differently, to have the ‘hard-wiring’, the ‘reset’, the ‘reboot’, the ‘download’ and all the other mechanistic metaphors currently possessing our voices dipped in glorious linguistic mud, slimed in the different ways the worms speak. Eco-poetry thrives in the complex ecology of an historically layered language pollinated by the strangeness of a world it is always discovering to be more complex than it imagined — and tries to conceive it.