9 – William Golding, Gaia, and the Crisis Ecology of Lord of the Flies

Théo Mantion1

Abstract: A case study in the aesthetic genealogy of the now widely debated Gaia hypothesis, this article charts out a critical position for the environmental humanities within such a paradigm. Beginning with a historical assessment of William Golding’s major role in the development of a Gaian aesthetics, I then turn to his 1954 novel Lord of the Flies to explore its articulation between literature, ecology, and politics. Revealing the critical potential of Simon’s character, I develop a new way of approaching Golding’s canonical work by emphasizing its evental and experimental nature. Although Simon’s character has been approached as the tragic victim of an irredeemable human nature, I use a Deleuzian approach that grants him an immanent position and offers perspectives for the contemporary critical moment, at a time when critique is attacked on every front.

“They do not understand me. I am not the mouth for these ears.
Too long apparently I lived in the mountains, too much I listened to
brooks and trees: now I speak to them as to goatherds.
… And now they look at me and laugh, and in laughing they hate me
too. There is ice in their laughter.”

— Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

“Writing has no other goal: … To release what can be saved from life, that which can save itself by means of power and stubbornness, to extract from the event that which is not exhausted by the happening, to release from becoming that which will not permit itself to be fixed in a term. A strange ecology, tracing a line of writing, music or painting.”

— Gilles Deleuze, Dialogues

I. “A Change in Sensibility”

In the 1970s, scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis formulated the Gaia hypothesis, a provocative, cybernetic articulation of biology, geology, and atmospheric chemistry through which the Earth is assumed to be a self-regulating system that sustains conditions favorable for life. As such, Gaia designates “The biosphere and all of those parts of the Earth with which it actively interacts” (Lovelock & Margulis, 3). In their wake, various inflexions of the Gaia paradigm2 have emerged and informed recent work in the social sciences as well as cultural and literary studies, where scholars and critics have relied on Gaia theory to develop new, dynamic ways of understanding the living world, and offer original attempts at rethinking politics and aesthetics by turning to its material processes.

However, “as science, Gaia never really made it,” Michael Ruse writes (“Holy Fool?”). Geologist Robert Diffendal suggests that the ill-fated trajectory of the first iterations of the Gaia hypothesis comes partly from the naming of the proposition, which is loaded with dense mythological background:

Designating this theory ‘Gaia’ got Lovelock into trouble with some of his detractors, who found it a bit too unscientific. Testing of the theory is still ongoing by many researchers who think it sound, but under such less controversial terms as ‘Earth System Science’ or ‘Geo-physiology.’ (139)

Despite a recent paper by Déborah Bucchi delving into the riches of onomastics by comparing the scientific Gaia, its use in the environmental humanities, and the Greek Goddess of the same name in the works of Aeschylus and Hesiod, a major protagonist in this story has suffered disregard, namely William Golding, one of Britain’s major 20th-century writers.3 Indeed, Lovelock and Golding both lived in Bowerchalke, a village in southern England, and the two friends would discuss their respective ongoing projects and musings during evening strolls around the village or at the pub (Carey, 290). And Lovelock remembers:

In 1968 or 1969, during a walk, I tried out my hypothesis on him [Golding]; he was receptive because, unlike most literary figures, he had taken physics while at Oxford as an undergraduate and fully understood the science of my argument. He grew enthusiastic and said, “If you are intending to come out with a large idea like that, I suggest that you give it a proper name: I propose ‘Gaia.’” … Ge, of course, is the prefix of the sciences of geology, geophysics, and geochemistry. To Golding, Gaia, the goddess who brought order out of chaos, was the appropriate title for a hypothesis about an Earth system that regulated its climate and chemistry so as to sustain habitability. (Lovelock, Vanishing, 196–7)

Although his naming suggestion may have damaged the scientific reception of the hypothesis, Golding was an early advocate of the revolutionary proposition pushed forward by Lovelock and Margulis. Frédéric Regard timidly identifies in a footnote what he sees as a potentially “Green” discourse in Golding, before referring to two book-reviews written by the author for British newspapers (106). In “Gaia Lives, OK?” (The Guardian, September 1976), Golding positions himself as one of the early supporters of the paradigmatic change offered by Lovelock and Margulis. A review of Georg Gerster’s book Grand Design: The Earth from Above, “Gaia Lives, OK?” charts out the implications of considering the human point of view as limited. Situating the recent proliferation of aerial views in the history of perception, Golding observes that

To know intellectually that the Mediterranean lies to the south of England and on the other side of France is not the same thing as seeing the dark line of water beyond Marseilles in a photograph taken over Hampshire. But the possible change in sensibility was to be overwhelmed by the last and greatest expansion of the human ‘point of view.’ (85)

Such aesthetic revolution goes beyond the identification of “patterns” displayed in pictures of the earth, the “aerial views of the marks made on the earth by man’s repetitious activities.” Indeed, the “Blue Marble” picture or aerial views of Europe help us to have a different sense of the materiality of the earth, and the traces of human activity are merely “trivial alterations to her [earth’s] skin,” compared to the massive, geological impact of “the coral insects” that “have had more effect than we have” (85). The aesthetic quandary for Golding lies in the fact that the magnitude of life’s action in terraforming is deemed approachable only intellectually. Yet, as he argues, “our growing knowledge both of the microscopic and the macroscopic nature of the earth is not just a satisfaction to a handful of scientists. In both directions it is bringing about a change in sensibility” (86). Thanks to the perceptual enhancement that aerial views have provided, aesthetics appears as the most potent domain for apprehending the earth and fleshing out the reality of the milieu in which we find ourselves. Golding is familiar with “the Gaian view of the atmosphere” that Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan define as “a radical departure from the former scientific concept that life on Earth is surrounded by and adapts to an essentially static environment” (“Gaia and Philosophy,” 60; italics mine). Instead, according to them “life interacts with and eventually becomes its own environment.” Golding’s alert, “those who think of the world as a lifeless lump would do well to watch out” (“Gaia Lives,” 86), eventually appears as a call not only for a change of sensibility but also, as I will show, for an apprenticeship in signs, an evental aesthetics.4 Theological in tone, this threat is also an aesthetic challenge to move beyond what Bruno Latour calls an “image of the Globe” (Latour, 111–145) and pay attention to the material processes at work in the Earth system.

Although Golding described human action as “trivial alterations” to the Earth’s surface, his tone changed dramatically fifteen years later, in January 1990, when he published in The Sunday Times a piece titled “The Earth’s Revenge.” In this review of John Gribbin’s Hothouse Earth: The Greenhouse Effect and Gaia, Golding resorts to prophetic intonations made tangible by the title, an unequivocal condemnation of mankind. Beginning his review with the notion of “climatic disaster,” Golding shares his awareness of the reality of climate change, its irreversibility5 as well as its global scale. As he identifies the specifically human agency at work behind the destruction of a “balance of forces,” Golding describes the “process” as having “already begun.”

Most importantly, Golding reformulates what is at stake: “The picture, therefore, is not of humanity inconvenienced by nature, but of humanity struggling with her for bare survival—and not in the distant future but beginning now.” Golding displays a minute understanding of the intricacies of planetary ecology, thus developing an understanding of the Earth as a dynamic milieu. Indeed, he references “Professor James Lovelock whose view of nature some 15 or 20 years ago was to see our planet as a single system, a creature having some of the attributes of a living organism.” As he tries to identify the conditions for survival and the preservation of the ecological milieu, Golding turns to ancient culture and mythology: “The Greeks prized an emotion they called sebas, a word which could mean as little as respect for a worthy person and as much as a reverential awe before the gods. They felt this sebas for Gaia.” From this spiritual vantage point, Golding develops:

Most emphatically we post-industrial-revolution men have seldom felt a proper sebas for Gaia. We experience far more its opposite, hubris. We suppose that we own Gaia when the truth is that she owns us and we cannot expect her to continue to afford us ‘the means of life’ when we live on her like a disease which is no more than a continual and brutal disruption of her self-regulating systems.

In this Greek conceptual framework of sebas vs. hubris, Golding argues that beyond reducing fuel consumption and geoengineering humanity into the future, the key might be to cultivate sebas—“we need to feel ‘sebas’ for the whole earth,” he writes. An irrebuttable dénouement follows suit:

There are signs that this revolution in feeling may be at hand. Otherwise, the only motive power which will drive our actions will be self-interest, starting in concern, heightened by way of worry to dread: and if the seas really do become a monster, and Gaia an outraged and avenging stepmother, the end will be panic and terror.

As a writer, Golding refines his articulation of aesthetics in the climate catastrophe that he anticipates. However, his aesthetics remains sheathed in the spiritual, rather than the historical: despite his dismissal of fossil fuel development models, his view remains Occidental and somewhat unaware of political contradictions. In his view, to take political action against climate change and ecological destruction can only occur through an aesthetic and spiritual apprenticeship that makes tangible the human and non-human processes of the Earth system.6

II. The Island As Intensive System

In his 1983 Nobel prize lecture, Golding opens a space for what he sees as the future of literature:

Words may, through the devotion, the skill, the passion, and the luck of writers prove to be the most powerful thing in the world. … Then there is hope that we may learn to be temperate, provident, taking no more from nature’s treasury than is our due. It may be by books, stories, poetry, lectures we who have the ear of mankind can move man a little nearer the perilous safety of a warless and provident world. It cannot be done by the mechanical constructs of overt propaganda. I cannot do it myself, cannot now create stories which would help to make man aware of what he is doing; but there are others who can, many others. There always have been.

In this part of his speech, Golding charts out a literary path towards political change as an alternative to “overt propaganda.” Unlike Amitav Ghosh, who writes that the “most intransigent way that climate change resists literary fiction lies ultimately in its resistance to language itself” (84), Golding believes language and literature are the appropriate vectors for such an aesthetic apprenticeship. Although he claims that he “cannot do it” himself, his most canonical novel Lord of the Flies is one of the most vibrant anticipations of Gaia as a dynamic, ecological paradigm. Thus, the irony in his statement is not to be overlooked. Neither is Golding’s public advocacy of environmental thought merely yet another occasion to boast the merits of cross-pollination between the sciences and the humanities; rather, it is an invitation to rethink the topicality of Golding’s 1954 book through the prism of ecological crisis and critical thought.

Now a classic of the British novel, Lord of the Flies is the story of a group of young boys who crash-land on a desert island.7 A postlapsarian rewriting of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), Golding’s novel sets up the space of the desert island as the virgin land on which British boys will have their masculine, colonial, feral drives result in destructive failure. Some have argued that Lord of the Flies belongs to the past, that its contents and style are merely the reflection of an era haunted by the Holocaust and the atom bomb—an interpretation that either immobilizes Golding’s novel as a symptom of the disenchantment of his generation or reduces the novel to the status of a Christian fable, or an allegory of evil as Hélène Cixous claims in her 1966 article. Yet, if there was a decline in popularity for Lord of the Flies, as James Baker suggests a couple of years later, this should not be the case anymore, for Lord of the Flies “forces us to recognize the likelihood of … the wanton abuse and destruction of environmental resources” (447). Although the novel is not about climate change per se, direct textual references to the atom bomb8 and the colonial destruction of milieus participate in the aesthetics of anthropogenic, global scale ecological disaster.

In Lord of the Flies, Golding anticipates the discrepancy between the Robinsonade where the island is merely the background for human action, and the dynamic ecosystem the Gaia hypothesis eventually reveals. Golding dismisses what Amitav Ghosh calls “a habit of mind that proceeded by creating discontinuities” (56), which is typical of the Modern tradition in Western literature. A constant mapping and encoding of space, the trait is exemplified by the boys on the island who establish such discontinuities. The “platform” (Golding, Lord of the Flies, 88) is transformed into the democratic space where assemblies are called, a political agora that contrasts with the “top of the mountain” (38) and its features of primitive acropolis, while the “Castle Rock” (118) becomes the fortress of Jack and his “tribe” (140). The urge to create discontinuities also appears in the early chapters of the novel, when the boys are eager to “draw a map” (27) of the island and claim it as theirs—“This belongs to us … All ours!” (29) one of the boys shouts. This iteration of the colonial sensibility of the past century overlaps with a Modern ecological model and participates in “a way of thinking that deliberately excludes things and forces (‘externalities’) that lie beyond the horizon of the matter at hand: it is a perspective that renders the interconnectedness of Gaia unthinkable” (Ghosh, 56). At the end of Golding’s novel, however, the scorching up of the island discards such attempts at establishing the land as the external background for human action. As it dramatizes the boys’ failure to “become emplaced” (Ghosh, 59), Lord of the Flies first plays with and ultimately turns away from what Ghosh claims to be distinctive features of the modern novel.

But Golding provides more than cartographic evidence, since it is the insular nature of the setting—similar to “our mother, Gaia Mater, set like a jewel in space” (“Nobel”)—that allows him to develop an original ecological aesthetics at a time of crisis. The island comes to life as a proto-Gaian system as Golding gives a body to the island as organism—it has a “scar” (Lord of the Flies, 7), a “lip” (28), a “brow” (96), a “backbone” (146), and a “neck” (174). Beyond mere personification, Golding grants actual agency to the islandic system: chapter 9 opens with “a steady current of heated air” while “revolving masses of gas piled up the static until the air was ready to explode” (145). The self-organizing property of the island’s intensive meteorological system has echoes in the numerous storms that all bring about crises in the novel, and all point to the way Golding understood the Gaia hypothesis as a cybernetic milieu structured along principles of energy dissipation. Such dynamism is made visible beyond shorter, more human temporal scales. Indeed, the narrative also often takes place at the level of the island’s geology: “The subsoil beneath the palm trees was a raised beach, and generations of palms had worked loose in this the stones that had lain on the sands of another shore” (62). The deep time of palm trees, life shaping the geology of the island is evidence of a story that exceeds the all-too-human categories of understanding of a group of British boys. The island becomes a dynamic ecosystem, albeit spread across various temporalities. In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh sees an almost unbridgeable gap between the narrative means of the novel genre and the amplitude of temporalities mobilized by anthropogenic climate change.9 Despite the fact that Golding’s novel does address climate change directly, it experiments with the dynamic relationship at work within the milieu we humans and non-humans find ourselves together. Paying attention to both the deep time of palm trees as well as human time, in which the swift scorching up of the same palm trees takes place, Golding explores the tensions at work between the various temporalities of the island’s ecosystem.

In Lord of the Flies, a double refutation is at work, destabilizing the traditional view of space (the failure to become emplaced), as well as temporal homogeneity (with the heterogeneous imbrication of various orders of temporality). As a result, Golding offers a more complex apprehension of the milieu as a dynamic ecosystem. The novel does not need to be concerned with the data-based, sprawling representation of climate change to make a critical intervention in that alley: the feeling of sebas that Golding uncovers in his later articles is already at work in Lord of the Flies with the intrusion of Gaian ecology as a character in the story. Indeed, the boys see darkness on the island and grant it animal features—“full of claws,” but most importantly “full of the awful unknown and menace” (99). As the boys seek to ward off such anxiety, Golding himself invites the reader to feel the terror and awe that a dynamic ecosystem inspires. However, Golding’s attention to material processes allows us to move beyond the transcendental decoding we too easily impose on the text. As his novel deconstructs the aesthetic norms of modernity, Golding not only offers an aesthetics relevant for our age, but he also formulates a demand for a critical regime that takes into account the evental properties of intensive systems. It is this shift in critical endeavor that I would like to explore now.

III. The Failure of Idealist Critique

In his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Karl Marx argues that Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe erases the historical and social relations of production in favor of a fiction naturalizing a state of affairs that is reversible (Bachofen, 88). The Robinsonade narrativizes the foundational move in ideology: in Capital, Marx jokes that “the relations between Robinson and these objects that form his self-created wealth are … so simple and transparent that even Mr Sedley Taylor [an economic popularizer of the time] could understand them” (170). In Lord of the Flies, such simplicity is at work with Piggy’s character, who is invested in ideology so much that he too easily dismisses the contradictions at work on the island—“We know what goes on and if there’s something wrong, there’s someone to put it right” (Golding, Lord of the Flies, 84), he says, turning away from material reality in favor of “rational” critique and a technicist view that considers the island from the outside. As he becomes the embodiment of stubborn, ideological rationalism, Piggy projects an image of the world as a lump waiting to be tamed through rational planning, and his remark that “life’s scientific” (88) displays a blind belief that ideas and logic precede reality; that everything should make sense and is meant to be acted upon by human intentionality. Piggy’s glasses are the symbol of knowledge and mastery by providing fire to the boys. Yet, his “specs” (40) also manifest his blindness to material, social and environmental processes. Piggy’s embodiment of ideological rationalism attempts to negate the material processes at work on the island: his plan to organize power over the insular territory and establish an ideal democratic constitution ends in chaos, as he fails to see, confront, and compose with the forces at work in the social and environmental ecology of the island.

Ultimately Piggy’s failure is that of the Robinsonade, it enacts the fantasy of an outside, which reveals itself as nothing more than a simulacrum steeped in ideology. Such a blind spot becomes more tangible when, directly after Simon’s murder, the rationalist and wishful thinker Piggy is unable to process what just took place. The dilemma eventually takes the form of the unspeakable: “It wasn’t—what you said,” Piggy says to Ralph, “gesticulating, searching for a formula” (156). The “unspoken knowledge” (158) of Simon’s murder is the space where the “fading knowledge of the world” (162) opens a breach in the ideological, utopian program. Piggy’s modernity is of no use when confronted to the reality of material contradiction. So is Jack’s promise to solve antagonism through killing rituals; it merely wreaks destruction and chaos. As a result, Golding presents Piggy and Ralph’s social-democratic ideals and Jack’s own proto-fascism as antagonistic only superficially: rather, they support each other dialectically, a dialectics from which Simon allows to diverge.10

While Piggy is unable to picture the existence of the beast in which the boys believe, thus blocking the possibility to deconstruct it, Simon offers a major critical move: to go and see the beast—“what else is there to do?” (128, 145), he whispers twice in the novel—the utterance of a proairetic code (Barthes, 19), that of action, decision-making and moving on. The central figure of a highly polyphonic novel, Simon belongs to the space of experience. His name—from the Hebrew שִׁמְעוֹן (hearing), matches his own behavior on the island: towards the end of chapter 3, as he wanders through the clearing of the island for the first time, he undergoes an intensive, sensory experience narrated through internal focalization: “Holding his breath he cocked a critical ear at the sounds of the island … the sounds of the bright fantastic birds, the bee-sounds, even the crying of the gulls” (Golding, Lord of the Flies, 57). Simon’s “critical ear” parallels the way Golding defines artists, those “who have the ear of mankind” and “can move man a little nearer the perilous safety of a warless and provident world” (“Nobel”). The primacy of experience becomes a defining feature of Simon’s critical position. As Reilly suggests, “Simon’s centrality to the text is related to … the sheer inadequacy of what passes among us for education.” Indeed,

Golding presents us with only two alternatives for Simon: to dismiss him as a holy imbecile, incomprehensible and irrelevant; or to concede that there are modes of knowing different from and perhaps superior to those based on rational insight and mathematical reasoning. (9)

Yet, such modes of knowing do not operate a shift towards otherworldly cognition, be it religious or more broadly transcendental. On the contrary, Simon’s character develops on a plane of immanence; his learning is not the excavation of a fundamental system of thought. Simon’s mode of learning has nothing to do with the assimilation of preexisting contents or pieces of information (which would introduce a form of idealism that his character resists). Instead of the Platonic conception of education famously exposed in Meno, where the contents of knowledge preexist the cognitive act of recollection, Simon learns through intensities.

In a section of Proust and Signs, Deleuze reveals the idea of education at work in In Search of Lost Time, which Ronald Bogue summarizes as follows:

Only through a chance encounter with an unsettling sign can thought be jolted from its routine patterns, and only through such an encounter will the object of thought cease to be arbitrarily selected and attain the necessity of something that itself chooses thought, that constrains thought and sets it in motion. (329)

Indeed, new, virtual possibilities become available to Simon as he perceives the saturation of “riotous colors,” the green of the candle buds, their whites and their “scent [that] spilled out into the air and took possession of the island” (Golding, Lord of the Flies, 57). He encounters such “riotous” and “spilling” signs not as preexisting units of a system, but as asignifying ruptures11 creating new, unexpected paths that break away from the routine patterns of the boys’ expedition. As “the susurration of the blood” (57) becomes more audible than the sea, Simon also establishes himself as a point of view. Eventually, Simon’s situatedness embraces an evental aesthetics of immanence: instead of abstracting himself from the world and establishing a transcendental subjective position, Simon is enmeshed within a cloud of material forces (human and non-human) which he encounters as signs, themselves concrescing with his own point of view.

Yet, Simon’s critical ear is not only a mode of sensual availability that reveals an immanent position; it also implies political responsibility in the context of catastrophe. When he eventually discovers the dead body of the pilot, animated like a puppet by the lines of his parachute as the wind blows, he understands that it is this rotting body that the boys mistook for the beast they are afraid of. Having understood the dangerous illusion, “he took the lines in his hands; he freed them from the rocks and the figure from the wind’s indignity” (146–147). As he untangles (quite literally) the symbols against which society contingently constructs itself, Simon’s critical position becomes political. When during an assembly the boys discuss the possibility of there being a beast, Simon leaves open such a possibility, and replies “maybe it’s only us” (89). Is he suggesting that the beast is only a projection of the boys’ imagination? Or that the beast is none other than themselves? In both cases, Simon displays once again a form of situated consciousness that Piggy, embodying the all-too-evident certainty of ideology, violently dismisses by abruptly cutting in: “Nuts!” (89). Piggy’s ideological blindness prevents him from deconstructing the illusion that his feral fellows are subject to, because it blocks the possibility of there being anything exceeding what he knows already. On the contrary, Simon’s availability and his open apprenticeship in signs constitutes him as a potent resisting force against ideology, a political position unto itself.

Neither theological nor spiritual at heart, Simon’s material critique does not unveil any bleak truth of the human condition; there is more at work in his position than mere potential for enchantment and wonder. Lord of the Flies, far from merely upturning the theme of the Robinsonade, constitutes an immanent reckoning with material processes. It is a profound endeavor to chart out the possibility of emergence of critique, beyond the idealism that is so typical of the utopian genre of the Robinsonade and its transcendental, ideological foundations. Against the artificial immediacy of such relations, Golding’s material depiction of a micro-society stranded on a desert island allows him to take up the critical gesture and reveal the socius as a dynamic field of forces and events that is open to transformation.

IV. Flight Without Escapism: Simon’s Critical Drifts

In a 1968 article, Henri A. Talon expresses his frustration with his perception of Golding as a moralist who does not offer anything, rendering him an ironic moralist. As a response, Baker convincingly suggests that Golding’s

steadfast opposition to the outworn public myths of the modern age is not simply negative or nihilistic. … All of his fiction shows us the possibility of a new mentality struggling to be born against the terrific odds imposed by the patterns of our social heritage and the limitations of our species. (460; italics mine)

Rather than carrying a supposedly “Goldingian” truth of the human condition, Lord of the Flies draws lines of becoming and transformation that move beyond metaphorical readings12 and ideological takes on human perfectibility.13 Instead of interpretation (Skilton) and the quest for “truth” (Sullivan), I am interested in the experiment Golding conducts. Indeed, both Lovelock and Golding shared a taste for “‘what-if?’ situations” (Carey, 291) and the appeal of making the text an active locus of experimentation is what allows Golding’s work to unfold well beyond the European cultural production of the time and its typical post-war anxiety: far-reaching, ecological questions that Golding foresaw in the middle of the past century are only entering the stage now.

In this regime of reading, the critical shift Lord of the Flies operates precisely as an exploration of the conditions of emergence of a “new mentality,” to use Baker’s expression. It is along such lines, instead of seeing Golding as an ironic moralist, that I read his novel as an active, non-representative,14 and anti-ideological experiment highly relevant for our age of climate catastrophe. Indeed, Simon’s materialism offers a way out of the self-sustaining, disastrous dialectic of ideology, the failure of which is dramatically embodied by Piggy. Many have read Simon as a tragic figure, the incarnation of Judeo-Christian, soteriological paradigms, bearing the weight of human guilt on his shoulders. Readings of Lord of the Flies use his death to give a sense of closure to the novel by transforming it into an easily-assimilable moral apologue, as is the case with Baker, who writes: “In Lord of the Flies we have perceived a re-enactment of the fall of man … and an awful fulfillment of the gloomy prophecies of Revelation; but these are only descriptive metaphors and not definitive analogues or parallels” (454). Yet, in this meticulous dismantling of ideology, “the intention is to undermine our naïve faith in the moral progress we like to read into modern social theory,” he continues. Eventually, he concludes that “we are not asked to abandon hope. We are only urged to recognize that “human nature” is dynamic and capable of extraordinary transformations which may result in social good or ill,” depicting Golding as a “relativist.” Indeed, symbolical readings of the novel have reterritorialized Simon’s ethics in an age-old ideological debate around good and evil in human nature.

In Jacques Lacan’s analysis of sexual maturation as the creation of a territory and partitioning of space, “territorialization” describes the emplacement of the subject and commands the investment of desire into given loci in the stable structure of the socius. Deleuze and Guattari are interested in the opposite processes that seek to liberate the body from such territory. They turn instead toward the milieu (an idea they poach from Jakob von Uexküll and his notion of Umwelt), which coextensively develops with what lives within it (such a move echoes Margulis and Sagan’s Gaian metaphysics). The milieu being a dynamic system, and not a territory, it allows for deterritorialization as the undoing of the fixed image of the subject, favoring virtual flows over actual territorialization. Simply put: “to deterritorialize is to free up the fixed relations that contain a body while exposing it to new organisations” (Parr, 69). Deleuze and Guattari’s interest in pure deterritorialization stems from the difficulty that deterritorialization never lasts and the potential creative assemblages it contains are blocked in reterritorialization. Simon precisely dwells in the virtual opening of deterritorialization, the knot of the event.

To pay tribute to what he embodies, one must instead turn towards the ways in which he materially embodies an immanent critical position. Instead of offering yet another interpretation of Simon as a Christlike martyr figure whose belief in moral values makes him stand out from the rest of the group, I read Lord of the Flies affirmatively by focusing on the active critical work that Simon’s character operates.

To unglue the novel from territorializing readings, I suggest a shift towards a Deleuzian mode that echoes the work done with Félix Guattari in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. For Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka has too often been read as a pessimistic, resigned writer of inexorably absurd worlds. In response, they open Kafka’s literary machine to display the transformative potential it bears. Just as “The Trial is the dismantling of all transcendental justifications” (51), they write, Kafka’s other works all aim at deterritorializing critique: against a critical position that is fixed on the outside, Kafka’s work operates from a position of immanence. Simon embodies the critical move quite literally during the subtle, delicate, yet perceptibly decisive event that occurs when he and the other boys wander during the land-surveying expedition: “Simon turned away from them and went where the just perceptible path led him” (Golding, Lord of the Flies, 56). The tension at work between the adverb “just” and the adjective “perceptible” echoes the nuance of the “flicker of incredulity” when Simon was considering the impossibility of a beast on the island; both locutions express an oscillatory, atopic opening in Simon’s critical sensibility, the immanent “care of the event” (Conley, 344). A method “much more intense than any critique,” (Deleuze & Guattari, Kafka, 48) deterritorialization as practiced by Simon is a deviation from the dialectics of power in which Ralph, Piggy, and Jack are engaged, as well as the mark of his experimental characterization. The evental quality of Kafka’s stories allows characters to engage in processes of immanent becoming, resisting the monolithic categories of idealist critique. Simon is able to go through such a process, but when he comes down from the mountain to share the news of his discovery with the other boys, in Zarathustrian fashion, they are unable to hear him and instead unleash their deadly urges:

It was crying out against the abominable noise something about a body on the hill. The beast struggled forward, broke the ring and fell over the steep edge of the rock to the sand by the water. At once the crowd surged after it, poured down the rock, leapt on to the beast, screamed, struck, bit, tore. There were no words, and no movements but the tearing of teeth and claws. (Golding, Lord of the Flies, 152–153)

Still, like in The Trial, when K. displays a becoming-animal as he is killed and cries “like a dog” (Kafka, 165), Simon’s becoming-animal occurs during his murder. The point of view is that of the boys, as the focalization shows: with the third person singular neuter pronoun “it,” Simon is referred to as “the beast” and displays animal features. Yet, the boys can only loosely refer to Simon’s animality: his becoming contrasts with Piggy’s fixed position in the animal realm throughout the story, since he is narrowly territorialized as a pig and condemned from the outset. The lack of generic precision in “beast” reveals from inside the diegesis the boys’ inability to give precise contours to what Simon embodies, thereby showing the latter’s deterritorializing potentiality. Ultimately, Simon’s initial sidestepping, his deviation15 from the track returns in the movement of his eventual death:

Somewhere over the darkened curve of the world the sun and moon were pulling, and the film of water on the earth planet was held, bulging slightly on one side while the solid core turned. The great wave of the tide moved farther along the island and the water lifted. Softly, surrounded by a fringe of inquisitive bright creatures, itself a silver shape beneath the steadfast constellations, Simon’s dead body moved out toward the open sea. (Golding, Lord of the Flies, 154)

In his short piece “Desert Islands,” which was written in the 1950s but published posthumously, Gilles Deleuze identifies two types of islands: oceanic, a force from the depths, such as volcanic islands; or continental, separated from a continent through erosion, disarticulation (9). In both cases, the island materializes a derivation, either vertical or horizontal. The materialization of an immanent thrust, a conflict between sea and land, the island is an event that pushes towards deterritorialization. The ideological failure of the Robinsonade is to believe in a pure origin, outside of ideology; yet “in its very failure, Robinson gives us some indication: he first needed a reserve of capital” (13). Deleuze then demonstrates that an island is always a “second origin” (13), a serial deviation. Islands are taken in a process of continual deviation, sites of resistance to territorializing attempts, leaving open a virtual field of differentiation. Such an opening, affirmative movement is at work in Simon’s death. While Piggy’s inert body is engulfed by the sea—“then the sea breathed again in a long, slow sigh, the water boiled white and pink over the rock; and when it went, sucking back again, the body of Piggy was gone” (Golding, Lord of the Flies, 181)—the trajectory of Simon’s dead body is an instance of becoming-island, the agent of a deterritorializing moving out. Far from being an arrêt de mort or death warrant, his killing is an immanent envoi “toward the open sea.”

As such, Golding uses Simon to open the critical situation, to feed the event, to untangle its knot and better identify a line of flight, unleashing transformative potential. As Deleuze and Guattari write:

Rather, it was the world and its representation that he [Kafka] made take flight and that he made follow these lines. It was a question of seeing and speaking like a beetle … Even more, in the novels, the dismantling of the assemblages makes the social representation take flight in a much more effective way than a critique would have done and brings about a deterritorialization of the world that is itself political. (46–7)

Likewise, and at one remove from ideological matters that would territorialize or close the event of Simon’s death as a sign of failure, Golding provides us with a character whose death is meaningful not ideologically but effectively; the beauty of Simon is his material “care of the event” as the other boys look for constant reterritorialization, be it Piggy’s rationalist scheme, or Jack’s proto-fascist fantasy. While they remain invested in the drive towards territorialization—materialized by the British officer who fetches the boys in an escapist move of salvation, Simon offers an alternative movement of drifting away, his ultimate death not as an act of closure, but as the ultimate affirmation of a “becoming” that pierces the horizon along a line of flight; fuite both as flight and leak—flight without escapism.


Using the novel’s own potential as a material and experimental critique, my reading of Lord of the Flies not only raises the question of society’s blindness to critique and the violence it unleashes against the figure of the critic who engages in deconstructive practices, it also questions the very idea of critical thinking in the current climatic, social, and political context. Simon speaks “almost in [Ralph’s] ear” (Golding, Lord of the Flies, 111), and yet he fails to be the consulting agency of politics. Does the failure to be heard mean that critique is condemned to roam? Should the critic mourn Simon’s death?

Although Golding was a “disillusioned modernist” (Baker, 457), he was not of the “despairing” (460) kind. Through aesthetics, he believed monumental change could take place. As he writes in one of his Gaia essays, “Surely, eyes more capable than ours of receiving the range of universal radiation may well see her, this creature of argent and azure, to have robes of green and gold streamed a million miles from her by the solar wind as she dances round Helios in the joy of light” (“Gaia Lives” 86). Of course, such Nietzschean, sun-worshipping flight of lyricism easily reads as merely theological or spiritual, but Simon’s critical work as immanent deterritorialization, and his “care of the event” manifests such an affirmation of life, even in death.

As we face historical and historic demands (Butler, 4) in the current ecological catastrophe, Lord of the Flies brings the affirmative impetus of deterritorialization into the critical discussion, while at the same time warning us: in the end, the island is but a piece of scorched earth. If Simon gives us an ethics, we still need a politics.

Works Cited:

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Carey, J., William Golding: A Life, London, Faber and Faber, 2009.

Cixous-Berger, H., “L’allégorie du mal dans l’œuvre de William Golding,” Critique, no. 227, April 1966, pp. 309–320.

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Coskren, T., M., “Is Golding Calvinistic? A More Optimistic Interpretation of the Symbolism Found in Lord of the Flies,” America, no. 109, 6 July 1963, pp. 18–20.

Cox, C. B., “Lord of the Flies,” Critical Quarterly, no. 2, Summer 1960, pp. 112–117.

Deleuze, G., “Desert Islands,” Desert Islands and Other Texts, Los Angeles, Semiotext(e), 2004, pp. 9–15.

Deleuze, G., The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, trans. Conley, T., Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

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Talon, H., A., “Irony in Lord of the Flies,” Essays in Criticism, vol. 18, July 1968, pp. 296–309.

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1 I would like to thank Tom Conley, Sarah Dimick, Alba Elliott, and the anonymous peer-reviewers whose attentive readings and generous feedback were immensely helpful in the preparation of this article. My gratitude also goes to Frédéric Regard for his mentorship. In many ways, his work made my intervention possible.

2 Bruce Clarke identifies two major figures of Gaia: Isabelle Stengers’s “Gaia the Intruder,” and Bruno Latour’s “secular Gaia” (Clarke “Rethinking Gaia”).

3 Golding and some of his works are mentioned several times in Ruse, M., The Gaia Hypothesis: Science on a Pagan Planet, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2013 (although a study of Lord of the Flies in relation to Gaia is beyond the scope of Ruse’s project).

4 See “What is an event?” in Deleuze, G., The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, trans. Conley, T., Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

5 Interestingly, instead of “crisis,” Golding uses the notion of climatic “disaster.” See Blanchot, M., The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Smock, A., Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

6 Golding’s ecological aesthetics might also have to do with his interest in esoteric, and spiritual movements. In his biography of Golding, John Carey writes that he praised Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the pseudoscientific school of anthroposophy, “for trying to find a bridge between the world of the physical sciences and the world of the spirit” (Carey 243). Indeed, an example of such direct influence has been identified in Golding’s use of the colors that form the basis of Steiner’s system (green, pink, white, and black) as the basis for the color symbolism in Lord of the Flies. For an analysis of the influence of Steinerian thought on Golding’s oeuvre, see Miyahara, K., “William Golding にRudolf Steiner 思想が与えたと思しき影響に関する覚え書き,” 英語と英米文学, vol. 38, 2003, p. 33–60. Miyahara suggests that Golding’s interest in Steinerian thought was sympathetic rather than fully committed. For a study of anthroposophy in relation to Gaia, see Ruse, The Gaia Hypothesis, p. 122–5.

7 For a recent exploration of islandic art and literature in the face of climate change, see DeLoughrey, Elizabeth, Allegories of the Anthropocene, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2019.

8 In what could be called his ars poetica, “Fable,” Golding, explains that “Before the Second World War [he] believed in the perfectibility of social man” until he “was unable to.” Written in the wake of the atom bomb, Lord of the Flies turns it into a leitmotiv: soon after the boys are stranded on the island they heave a rock from the top of the top of the mountain and let it smash into the forest, “like a bomb” (25). In the second chapter, the boys make a fire that quickly leads to dreadful images of atomic blasts: “For yards round the fire the heat was like a blow” (41); “A tree exploded in the fire like a bomb” (47). The internal focalization creates surprise and fear before the realization that it is “just” trees burning. This momentary surprise connotes the deeper trauma of the atomic bomb. Episodes of fire scattered about in the novel develop a genealogy of the notion of progress from the early dreams of mastery over nature to the deadly illusion of technics that end up transforming the island into a waste land. This of course feeds into the pessimistic reading of Lord of the Flies as a dark fable about entropy and the destructive drives of humanity. As will become clear later on, I am quite resistant to this conservative reading that brackets off the active, immanent critique that Golding offers in his novel.

9 Gould, S. J., Times Arrow, Times Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1987, p. 173. Cited in Ghosh.

10 Here, Golding’s experiment with proto-Gaian critique and Simon’s role allows to resist Lovelock’s own drive towards ecofascism. Indeed, Lovelock expresses the need for democracy to be suspended as part a global effort to tackle the anthropogenic climate disaster (Lovelock, Vanishing 95; Sagan, “Uchronia” 163). On ecofascism, see Dubiau, Antoine, Écofascismes, Caen, Grevis, 2022.

11 Deleuze and Guattari use the example of the rhizome to define an asignifying rupture. Cutting a rhizome allows for two divided branches to grow. An asignifying rupture takes place as an act of amplification promoting differentiation.

12 For Baker, Lord of the Flies has faced rejection precisely because it has too often be read as metaphor (459).

13 C. B. Cox insists upon the religious dimension of the novel and depicts Golding as a writer for whom “every detail of human life has a religious significance.” Thomas Marcellus Coskren leans towards a more optimistic approach, one that differs from mine insofar as he emphasizes individual responsibility while I seek to “de-moralize” the novel in favor of a materialist critique. I am more inclined to agree with Kenneth Watson, for whom the novel has been too often and too easily assumed to be a religious work.

14 On the “representative” regime of art, see Rancière, Jacques, Le Partage du sensible, Paris, La Fabrique, 2000.

15 On another level, a deviation but also a deviancy if we follow accounts of Simon as a queer character, as embodying a becoming-homosexual.

4-Vivid Entanglements: Materializing Climate Crisis in Mainstream Poetry

Abstract: How does contemporary mainstream Anglophone poetry represent climate crisis? Taking this simple question as starting point to critical exploration, this article contends that mainstream poets, often dismissed as conventionally realist (and, as a result, very seldom taken as objects of ecocritical study) as opposed to the experimental avant-garde, use innovative poetics in order to figure a crisis defeating both imagination and representation, as well as metapoetically interrogate their own modes of representing nature. Through the study of a recent anthology dedicated to the climate crisis, Kate Simpson’s Out of Time, Poetry from the Climate Emergency (2021), we will see how mainstream poets experiment with form and language, focusing attention on the visuality, iconicity, materiality and plasticity of the poem, rather than the “hyperobject” (Morton) they purportedly represent. Troubling mimetic representation in order to open up the poem into a more problematic site of meaning, these poems grope with issues of scale, space and voice, pushing the reader to actively engage with the recalcitrant text and, potentially, experience their entanglement in the world through poetic artifice.

: non le bois intrinsèque et dense des arbres.
(Mallarmé, 210)

The crisis of representation affecting contemporary ecopoetry appears as yet another variation on the crisis of figuration which has defined literary modernity since Mallarmé’s foundational “Crise de Vers”. From the fin de sièclepartisans of “pure poetry” rejecting the pretentions of the realistic in favour of the symbolic, to the ecological poetry of today grappling with the “impossible representational demands of the Anthropocene” (Auje, 2) the question has, seemingly, shifted focus from the aesthetic to the ethical, but remains grounded in the same issue, namely the fraught relationship between language and the world which has become synonymous of our modern condition. Although the crisis of representation in literature, now crystallised in the prevailing poststructuralist idea that language fails to represent the world, is not new, climate change, one of the defining symptoms of our contemporary ecological crisis, has added a layer of complexity to the issue, posing new ethical and aesthetic challenges to the poet. Where Mallarmé pondered over how best to figure the forest without, however, calling into question the very concept of nature, today’s poets grapple with the representational demands of a burning forest, as well as the literal and figurative end of nature.

How to represent our “dwelling in crisis” to use Frederick Buell’s phrase? “Dizzyingly convoluted, comprising many correlated at times seemingly contradictory processes happening in multiple places and times, at varying rates and scales and with myriad types and degrees of consequence” (Banerjee, 3), the environmental crisis is set to defeat representation just as it has been memorably said to defeat imagination. How to show indeed the “tremendous complexity and the variegated multisensory, material and representational aspects of climate breakdown” or even the “slow violence of environmental impacts unfolding over the years, even centuries and millennia” (Banerjee, 7)? Climate change, one of the most striking examples of Timothy Morton’s “hyperobjects”, has made the question of vastly discrepant scales, both temporal and geographical, one of the main focuses of ecocriticism and ecopoetry, encouraging critics to call for a new “scalar literacy” (Clark, 38)1. Questions of scale have brought with them new issues of “resolution, visuality, communicability, iconicity and indexicality” (Banerjee, 3), all of which are relevant to scientific studies of climate breakdown, but also to studies of those poets who wish to address the issue in representational terms. It is no wonder so many contributions on the climate crisis circle back to issues of “imagining the unimaginable” or “representing the unrepresentable”, in an inextricable loop which appears to underpin both creative and critical thinking on the topic.

Questions of mimesis, mimetic fidelity and illusion, the limits of objective representation and issues of reference in writings on nature, have run through ecocriticism since its beginnings. Already posed in Laurence Buell’s nuanced defence of “the now disputable aesthetic of classical realism” (90) in nature writing, Timothy Morton’s Ecology Without Nature (2009), coined the concept of “ecomimesis” to charaterize the techniques in Romantic poetry that attempt to provide a (falsely and thus problematically) transparent view of nature. In line with recent philosophical and environmental thought, from Bruno Latour’s hybrids to Morton and Stacy Alaimo’s work on the Anthropocene subject’s enmeshment in the world, nature and natural phenomena have been shown to be neither transcendent nor distinguishable from us, prompting Matthew Griffiths to conclude that “traditional literary categories are problematically placed to engage with the complexities of climate change, because we cannot consider the climate as a single phenomenon that is separate from us and can be mimetically represented in language” (20).

I. Mainstream Ecopoetics

But what do these considerations on mediated and unmediated “reality”, calling for a re-examination of our modes (and subjects) of representation, mean concretely to poets currently writing on the climate crisis? In a bid to give a (necessarily limited) overview of how contemporary mainstream Anglophone poets deal with the representational dilemmas of the climate crisis, I have chosen here to study Kate Simpson’s anthology, Out of Time, Poetry from the Climate Emergency, published in 2021 in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Offering a medley of current writing on the climate crisis aimed at a wide-ranging public, the anthology gathers a number of highly-followed and popular award-winning poets such as Sean Hewitt, Raymond Antrobus, Pascale Petit or Sue Riley, and has been well-received by the specialised and mainstream press. As in many such anthologies committed to uniting the pen and the sword, part of the proceeds are donated to a public cause (here a British environmental campaigning association, “Friends of the Earth”). The collection of 50 poems is divided into five chapters (emergency, grief, transformation, work, rewilding), following a traditional progression from anger, irony and grief to final expressions of “tender (if fragile) moments of hope” (24), a redemptive narrative that is frequently found in anthologies dedicated to catastrophic events, as in WWI poetry collections, a staple of British school curricula. The themes and tropes are consistent with activist environmental poetry, among which the lament on humankind’s destructive behaviours, the decentering of the human figure through a focus on non-human voices, prevailing imagery of waste, debris, extinction and its attending bio-chemical terminology and variations on Clément and Skinner’s “third landscape” (“abandoned terrain, transitional zones, wastelands, swamps, moors, bogs, but also the edges of roads, shores, railway embankments”, 264). Despite the editor’s assurances that the “anthology does not simply celebrate and appreciate the beauty of nature in an attempt to emotionally reconnect readers through a form of neo-Romanticism” (24), the collection also features vestiges of traditional nature poetry, namely the classic opposition between nature and culture resulting in the yearning for a pristine nature separate from humanity (often manifested through animal subjects as in “Polar Bear in Norilsk”, or “Blue Morpho, Crypsis”) and the symbolism of man’s primeval fall.

What strikes the reader at first is thus not radically novel themes or alterations to the lyric mode, but the highly visible language and formal layout of the poems, rife with typographical freedoms and visual play (stanza asymmetry, bold type, pattern poems), techniques usually encountered in more experimental ecological poetry (published in reviews such as ecopoetics, with affinities to language poetry). In recent decades, poetry of climate change, often experimental and/or academic in its origins, published in confidential reviews, has flowed into the so-called “mainstream2”, in part through the publication of widely-received anthologies3 and the multiplication of publically-funded projects, curated by highly visible institutional poets (C.A. Duffy’s 2015 “Keep in The Ground” Guardian project and Simon Armitage’s creation of the Laurel Prize in 2020 are cases in point). Kate Simpson’s anthology places itself in the same ideological line as these popular poets who have, in their official capacity at least, often favoured simplicity and accessibility over experimentation in order to interact directly with the general public. This accessibility is what has led many ecocritics, Griffiths among them, to be wary of mainstream poetry’s capacity to engage fruitfully with the climate crisis, underlining that institutionally ordered poems and anthologies, are “more than likely to confirm our existing ideologies rather than challenging them”, thus failing “Eliot’s criterion for poetry’s social function” (158). For Griffiths, mainstream poetry is not successful partly because it does not consciously adopt “innovative” poetics in the modernist tradition which are, in his view, the best manner to work against the assimilation of climate change into nature poetry and “explore the forces and principles that contribute to its emergence across the XXth century, rather than its symptoms” (176).

Mainstream” poetry is indeed regularly opposed to “experimental” “avant-garde” or “neo-modernist” poetry in critical discourse (this is all the more apparent in ecocriticism which rarely focuses on non-experimental productions), a contention which fails to take into account that the modernist aesthetic has entirely permeated mainstream British poetry, as already suggested in the conclusion of Ian Gregson’s Contemporary Poetry and Postmodernism (1996). Yet, mainstream poetry (featuring a “conventionally poetic personal lyric, premised on stable conceptions of selfhood”, according to Griffith, 22) is still implicitly accused of comforting the public in its realist illusions and expectations, as underlined by poet Mario Petrucci’s comment on how our

processes of perception and representation […] are marred and distorted by being trammelled into certain stock ways of expressing oneself and understanding oneself, [running the risk of missing] all the things one has to understand, know, experiment with (along with those we can’t know, or at best merely glimpse) in order to be completely human, to be fully related to everything that happens to us (Petrucci 2009, cited by Griffiths, 23).

However, far from relying on “stock ways of expressing and understanding oneself” to engage with the complex phenomena of climate change, this anthology shows that contemporary mainstream poetry experiments with innovative poetics, their attempts at disrupting form and language sometimes resulting in a striking open-endedness. According to Simpson, the collection is

not simply about conjuring a path to help others imagine its shape, surface, texture and direction but demolishing the structure of the path entirely – recognising the limitations of straight edges – looking for something less linear and more nuanced. (20)

Issues of linearity and non-linearity inform the construction of the anthology: it is through the jostling of more conventional “nature poems” and experimental texts characterized by representational and interpretative uncertainties, that an impression of cumulative derangement and disjunction is created. Rarely do the selected poems express a stable sense of the world and a unicity of the lyric subject (the shifting, porous, boundaries of the self perhaps best shown in the chapter entitled “Transformations”), as they attempt to represent the climate crisis, broken down into scrambled, sensorial, figurations, lacking both formal and emotional linearity. Perhaps the two most emblematic poems of this linear derangement, at least formally, are “Geography Lesson” and “Eclogue of the Garden 9” which, in forcing us to tip the book over to decipher the text, quite literally ask us to disarrange our reading practices.

II. “To Actively Look”

Timothy Clark coins a word to describe our nonplussed reaction to the urgency of our predicament: “stuplimity” − “like other unwholesome aspects of the Anthropocene, we mostly respond to mass extinction with stuplimity: the aesthetic experience in which astonishment is united with boredom” (12). One of the more militant goals of ecopoetry is to prompt a new awareness of the world and its systems by challenging our preconceived notions of how nature is written about and thus confounding our established reading, thinking, and ultimately, living practices. This has encouraged experimental ecopoets to search for new forms of representation, leading sometimes to arbitrariness and formlessness, “straining the boundaries of accessibility, relevance and even readability” (Clark, 176) into an obscurity which can be detrimental to their activist agenda. Keenly aware of the importance of readability and communicability, Simpson finds a middle way between experimentation and convention in her anthology, while choosing poems that draw attention to the physical act of writing and reading, in an effort to draw readers out of their “complacency” (18). Her introduction poses the fundamental question “what does it take to make us actively look?” (19). As an answer, she insists on the importance of language, urging us “to start looking more seriously to words as building blocks – tools for ecological restoration, […], placing value on the restorative properties of linguistics as part of our rewilding efforts” (22). If Simpson’s belief in the transformative properties of poetry perhaps overstates its role in inciting behavioural change, it nevertheless has the merit of foregrounding language in a genre which, under its mainstream form at least, is more often read for its message and referent. This resonates with Scott Knickerbocker’s call for a move away from mimetic, realist poetry towards a more “sensuous” and figurative ecopoetics in The Language of Nature, The Nature of Language (2012), giving prominence to the materiality of language and the body of the poem in order to “enact rather than merely represent, the immediate, embodied experience of nonhuman nature” (17).

As editor of the anthology, Simpson’s attention has arrested on a number of highly vivid poems which aim, through experiments in typography, punctuation and spacing, at being eye-catching and, consequently, eye-opening. Rarely however do these poems engage directly or literally with the climate crisis, moving beyond conventional realistic representation towards a more disrupted, interconnected figuration of the subject and world in crisis. The anthology shows poets using a range of formal strategies to explore material, sensorial and, for the most radical, almost non-representational, modes of figuring the world. Keenly aware of, and yet playing with, the limitations of representing the crisis in poetry, the poets display themselves groping with language, textual space and established forms, materializing the struggle towards expression in the body of their poems. In turn, our reading is altered as we are pushed to actively engage with the recalcitrant text, and gain through a material awareness of the reading process itself, a multi-layered consciousness of the world.

III. Plays with Space: Connections and Disconnections

From the first poem of the anthology (“New Planet, Who Dis”), a compact block of print brimming over its margins and punctured with blanks, to “One Breath”, a one-sentence paragraph squeezed between two wide banks of space, an ongoing play with poetic spacing, hierarchizing and framing, signals a resistance to the codified inscription of the poem on the page. “New Planet, Who Dis” does not offer a readily apparent explanation for its use of contracted margins and intra-textual blanks: in fact, the tone is abrasively off-hand and the last line (“what you want a moral too? fuck off”) denies a satisfying conclusion to the poem as well as calling into question its whole point. The contrast between the crowded page and the dissolution of the final sentence into blank space in no way appeases or resolves the urgency of its tone, placing the whole anthology under a liminal uncertainty. There is something going on in the margins, out of reach of our reading gaze, to paraphrase Morton on Hillman’s “A Geology” poem, but what exactly?

Throughout the collection, conventional and less conventional examples of spatialized text are put to the fore, through disrupted stanza shapes, elastic margins, and plays with intra-textual and extra-textual space. Vahni Capildeo’s “Scales of Loss and Longing” is divided into stanzas to the right and left of the page, mimetically evoking the two uneven sides of a scale in a visual and emotional imbalance which remains unresolved at the end of the poem. More visually striking, though still conventional in form and content, is the non-figurative pattern poetry explored by Rosamund Taylor in “From Sperm Whale to Colossal Squid” and Sue Riley in her Ginko Prize-winning poem, “A Polar Bear in Norilsk”. Both texts give voice to nonhuman subjects, choosing to break down the linearity of the poem as they move towards experiences beyond the human scale, as shown in “A Polar Bear in Norilsk”’s first lines:

if I could find
if I could rest                          here      or here   if I look
if I could find the hard edges             of quiet of cold       of ice

Written after the news story that took the internet by storm in 2019, Riley’s poem has to compete with the iconic value of a photograph showing a haggard polar bear roaming the streets of an industrial Siberian town. The polar bear itself, “an indisputable image of climate change” (“Why the Polar Bear”), is a recurrent trope in discussions over rising sea levels, and was notably used in former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion’s “The Sorcerer’s Mirror” (2009), as part of a campaign to reduce carbon emissions. Though Riley’s final lines, in their appeal to “go back” to a pristine state of nature, do not move past the conventional “polar sublime” criticized by Griffiths (15), the gaping lines attempt to signify loss and trauma that cannot be articulated in human terms while showcasing the limits of our necessarily anthropomorphic use of language (typically, the poem never does reveal the missing object of the first line: “if I could find”).

Moving past these conventional figurations of the climate crisis that fail to disrupt our habitual modes of reading, Karen McCarthy Woolf’s “The Science of Life 492” uses blank spaces and an aesthetic of erasure, to reveal the potentially infinite allusions and associations hidden under monologic scientific discourse. The “humument” or erasure-poem is a form of found poetry, recycling another text (here the 1929 Encyclopaedia of Popular Science, co-authored by H.G. Wells and Julian Huxley) out of which a poem is exhumed. In the search for unintended concordances, phrases or words are isolated from their original context and new meanings and effects are hewn out of the original. Following in the footsteps of Tom Phillips’ celebrated A Humument4 (1970-2016), Woolf draws out “Hence” (extracted from “The Science of Life”), a reflection on the meaning of consequence and the endlessly branching connections in texts and ecosystems:


As the wind blows
                   innumerable plump and hideous

insignificant in themselves but rich —
                              It is a strange world

*An Ode

spasm                                         was being prepared
                                     and the climate
began                                   to change

According to the poet, the practise of the erasure-poem allows her to unearth a “text which articulates an oppositional view […] to expose that view itself, bring it out, amplify it” (“Introduction to Erasure Poems”). The poem is implicitly grounded in the entanglement of the invisible source text (materialized by the blanks) and the words which emerge out of it in a changed context: the scientific description of life in an underwater pond flowers into a fantastical and scathing vignette of the Western world (“plump and hideous/landfolk/insignificant in themselves but rich”) ending on a threatening, and paradoxical, ode to climate change. This one-sided palimpsest convincingly and playfully generates relations between apparently disparate, even opposite, discourses. The blank spaces allow for the flourishing of contingency, in a more literal interpretation of Skinner’s concept of “entropology”, defined as:

a poetic practise that poises itself between a poetic crafting of language and the effects of chance meaning and association [….] a technique that moves towards a displacement of anthropocentric modes of reading, enabling modes of meaning-generation that result from unforeseen links and possible resonances that must exceed any one human stance. (Clark, 70-1)

If it does not necessarily entail “a displacement of anthropocentric modes of reading”, the humument technique, by shunning completion, linearity and transparency while suggesting infinite possibilities under the poem (rather than surging forth from it), does indeed disturb conventional reading practices and expectations. Depending on chance and contingency, the poem is seen as an “open, relational form in which no element is inherently or lastingly central” (Keller, 41), perhaps in the image of the original ecosystem depicted in Well’s Encyclopaedia.

Another form of exploration of disjunction and unexpected concordances, by way of an entirely different formal exercise, is to be found in John Kinsella’s “Eclogue of the Garden 9” (as in “The Science of Life 492”, the numeral suggests, above the usual anthological effect, missing poems and absent links, synecdoche pointing towards a greater yet always incomplete whole). Refusing to restrict the text to one linear narrative (impression reinforced by the necessity to turn over the book to decipher the poem), the division of the poem into two juxtaposed columns, allows for simultaneous double reading on both horizontal and vertical lines, forcing the reader to continually readjust their perception to the “degrees of mutability” exposed in the poem. Conflicting views are revealed by the white chasm in the middle of the poem which complicates reading and meaning – if read vertically, the poem is characterized by disjointedness, contradiction and fruitful random generations of images, if read horizontally it presents a more orderly lyrical discourse, as the first lines show:

The mood can so inflect the garden             as precious water on precious leaves
inflects, drags you into the prisms.              Last night a tread in the air and a beating
of the house, and even the garden               trembled. I went out in the dark
verandah light on                                        barn owl spread shadow wings

Kinsella consistently relies on the pastoral mode which he questions and deconstructs as he deploys it, no less so with the eclogue which, according to him, “allows for conflicting voices to work within a specific framework – a mode that contains difference probably more than it allows it” (148). Wary of analogies and “the stale historicising of gardens/ given, laid out, waiting to be spoiled”, the poet reads the garden against tempting pastoral solace, focusing instead on farming practices and their ecological impact, and offering a critique of colonization and capitalistic land-degradation. The possible double-reading, by creating new relations between lines and words (read vertically, for instance, the hierarchy established between exterior and interior in the horizontal reading, is reversed: “the garden/inflects, drags you into the prisms/of the house”), reinforces the existing thematic interrelations between the microcosm of the garden and massive agribusiness concerns, porous time spans (prehistory and post-industrial Australia), and entwined natural and cultural phenomena such as the “reaching root” and the nuclear flower. Instead of fostering the stability of self, the garden reveals nothing but pollen-like dispersion: “Garden is where soul is tested/ garden is where the ‘I’ will never/recover from accruals disperse/ with pollen from a bolting exception”. Accompanying the thematic and formal play on disjunction and conjunction, congruence and incongruence, the reading experience itself is doubled (potentially even trebled) and disrupted. As such, the poet’s own articulation of derangement (“overwritten with anguish and second guessing”) is successfully transmitted to the reader, the act of reading becoming, metapoetically, a stepping into the darkness: “I disturbed/ myself with lines from Shakespeare/ Because unfamiliar night sounds/ make you hesitate before stepping/ into darkness”.

By resisting linearity both in the perception of the world they offer and in the poem-object itself, these texts eschew straightforward or standardized representation of the climate crisis. Instead, they insist on the production of random meaning as they foreground issues of disconnection and interconnectedness. In doing so, these texts call for a more material, and more unsettling, reading experience as they focus attention on language and the building blocks of the poem.

IV. “Dense and Darkly”: Lines of Entanglement

In line with the precepts of new materialism, experimental ecopoets have found phenomenological meaning in reinjecting the body into their productions in an effort to highlight our enmeshment with the world. Nuno Marques shows how experimental ecopoets work on the “material aspects of communication” so as to bring the “presence of others’ bodies into the composition […], creating the perception of a shared materiality” (34) through the use of collage, scientific reports, visual poetry, aggregation of words, or spectrograms as in Skinner’s “Blackbird Stanzas”. In his exploration of “sensuous poesis”, Knickerbocker also insists on a heightened attention to body of the poem in order to mimetically call forth our own embodied participation in human-nonhuman encounters. Rather than human-nonhuman encounters however, the poems discussed here draw attention to the physicality of the poem to insist upon issues of interconnectedness existing between living and non-living things and the more abstract historical phenomena of climate change. In the same movement, by revealing the density and texture of print, thus breaking down the illusory transparency of text, the poems materialize the (often complex and obscuring) mesh of language, as a correlative to the mesh of the world.

Khairani Barokka’s “Fence and Repetition: A History of Climate Change”, mixing both prose and versified poetry, is interesting in this aspect. Working as a palindrome, the poem can be read both ways, generating unexpected semantic links, meanings and obscurities, through repetition and inversion of syntagms. Divided into three parts, the poem offers a (very) compact history of climate change, denouncing the impact of colonization and resource extraction on the welfare of animal species and the planet. The middle part consists of one brief, widely-spaced versified stanza printed in italics, the lyrical impulse (materialized by the slanted cursive) standing out against the two dense prose blocks of colonial “history”. The middle stanza acts thus like lyrical intermezzo, materializing the angry and desperate cry of “those above ground and below” who stand against the “steward song” and “mellifluous thinking” characteristic of the prevailing political order. Beyond a mere Oulipian exercise, the poem seeks to delinearize the way we read poetry just as its suggests a potential un-reading of history through its specular layout. The reversed lines acts as a rejection of the rationalization and standardized measurement of colonization (“divi[ding]”, “sectioning”, “catalogu[ing]”, “breaking”), the “fencing” of land, to quote the title, finding its equivalent in the fencing of language. From “overheated necks” (¶1) to “overheated minerals (¶3), from “the salty cud of other species” (¶1) to “the salty cud of other centuries” (¶3), and from “all endings/paused” (¶1) / to “all endings/ with cracked hot soil” (¶3), the palindromic reversal insists on the unsettling porousness of poetic language. The palindromic effect disrupts linear reading, generating aggramaticalities and obscurities, as the reversed lines of the third paragraph struggle against syntax, attempting to create grammatical and semantic links beyond formal disruption. In doing so, the poet inscribes resistance in the body and the language of the poem, creating a parallel between the unyielding reading experience and the political struggle it calls for.

Similarly interested in the material effects of resistant text, Astra Papachristodoulou’s prose poem “Void” draws on the seemingly everyday device of bold emphasis to thicken the text, enhance its physicality by drawing attention to its building blocks. Although the poem’s title suggests a concern with figuring the “void”, the form insists on textual density and substantiality, materializing varying intensities of scale, tone and image, through the use of boldface:

From soil to isolation. Horizon to horizon. As far as the eye can see. Found it on a hike, getaway, moving like a single vast living creature. Sometimes greasy, sometimes gore. Sifting it, sorting it, breathing it. Observing over its entire decomposition with caution. Paths leading to piles of debris. A minute offers local fuels to the void. Fast-growing surplus of cables cover landscape. A landfill, a growth, a landfill, a layer. Waste happens. In the occasional, without recognition. Over its vast girth. The hum of dust, happens. Contaminated plants, tessellate. Marching into the foray behind fixated bulldozers. Objects drawn along and rough, and along. Turning into clouds of toxic dust. Silences, against what surfaces. […] Sifting it, sorting it, breathing it. Amid the junk floating in zero gravity, pungent smell drifts far out along the highway. Space can be dense, or darkly.

Papachristodoulou showcases her attempt at giving form to the climate crisis as a “hyperobject”, presented here as a growth, a process happening “in the occasional, without recognition”. The evocation insists on a generalized dynamism driving the poem onwards, highlighted by the frequency of continuous forms (sorting, breathing, observing, leading, growing, marching, turning, floating, etc.). The continuous flux and porousness between states is revealed through techniques of accretion and variation in macro and micro-structural forms − anagrammatic permutation of letters and capitalization, as in the first lines, create mirror-effects: “From soil to isolation. Horizon to horizon” (my emphasis). Opposing states of decomposition and generation meld together through repetition and variation (“a landfill, a growth, a landfill, a layer”), just as, syntactically, adjectives and adverbs appear interchangeable (“space can be dense, or darkly”, “objects drawn along and rough”). Juxtaposition and syntactical breaks at the end of lines strikingly isolate verbs (“The green of a circuit-board, catches”, “The hum of cable, happens”, “contaminated plants, tessellate”). The verbs emerge from the nominal propositions, both joining and disjoining the sentences and generating an overwhelming impression of entropy. Through this confusing mass of interrelated notations, it is never made clear what exactly is the nature of what is being “observed with caution”, “as far as the eye can see”. The abundance of impersonal pronouns amplify the object’s indeterminate status as the poem actively performs the dissolution of limits between natural and artificial, animal and mineral, life and death processes, the intangible and the tangible. Scales collide as the vast and the minute coalesce, creating effects of disproportion and discordance. The uncanniness of the process is heightened by the random patterns of significance established by the use of bold, emphasising lines over others without a clear hierarchy of meaning. The alternating font also underlines the orality of the text, its sonorousness and rhythm. The poem is intended to be vocalized, the bold suggesting a double enunciation, where contrasting volume and (binary, ternary) rhythms, repetition and refrain act like a responsary to the lines in normal type (“Sometimes greasy, sometimes gore. Sifting it, sorting, breathing it’). Thus the poem moves beyond the purely representational, pushing the reader to engage sensorially with the flow of notations, the enactment of a process and the performance of the poem itself.

A similar resistance to transparent, linear representation is to be found in poems which concentrate on the aural in order to intensify the materiality of text, as in Andrew Fentham’s “Porth”. Through an accretion of highly rhythmic, asyntactic notations in free verse, the seascape around Porth is materialized, rather than represented, through sound:

otherwise up droskyn
anyway up droskyn
under armour no doppler
shift the batholith
quiet flemish ledge
breakers breakers on the town
a fox a badger a bear
quiet among scrambled egg
lichen humid dune slacks
quiet on twelve cist one
dumpy stonechat gear
sand out in ligger bay
towans as gun range
golf club holiday bunkers

piran as bladderwhack scarecrow
piran as half a young porpoise
head half just spine

The sensation of movement induced semantically by the wealth of prepositions (“up”, “up”, “under”) is reinforced by the swift, fractured rhythm of the short lines. Assonance and alliteration, colliding phonemes sometimes difficult to pronounce (“shift the batholith”, “lichen humid dune slacks”), heighten the materiality of the words by marking their physicality in the mouth. The fragmented syntax and absence of capitalization (confusing proper and common nouns), only reinforce the impression of a haphazard assemblage of words and sounds. The repeated, unfamiliar technical, historical and regional nouns (droskyn, batholith, bladderwhack, stonechat, cligga, piran, etc.), because they do not immediately signify, focus attention on their physicality, their aural and visual inscription the page. The short rhythmic lines turn thus into a quasi-babble of sonorous words, generating an abstract, not-quite referential, image of the natural environment. To use Knickerbocker’s distinction, “the immediate, embodied experience of nonhuman nature” (17) is enacted rather than merely represented through the use of “wild language” (13). Instead of signalling away from itself towards the town of “Porth” it supposedly represents, the poem “exists” in and of itself. By promoting sensory experience over linear representation, the poem favours thus the perceptual over the conceptual engagement of the reader so as to translate our material embeddedness in a world of fragmented yet interrelated things.

V. Artifice and Engagement

The preceding analyses have shown that the poems of the anthology seek to act as a zone of contact, highlighting our interrelation with the world, through a range of formal strategies which focus on the materiality of language and, as a consequence, draw attention to the artifice of poetry and poetic representation. The attention to language, in its “anthropocentric focus on textuality” (Knickerbocker, 2) is rarely considered the purview of ecopoetry and ecocriticism, as it appears to run counter to ecocentric engagement. In effect, the focus on text and textuality has generally been resisted by ecocritics, in a dualist movement which opposes the phenomenological reality of the environment to textuality, language and, ultimately, logocentrism, often seen as one of the causes of our divorce from the “immediate” experience of non-human nature (David Abram). Underneath this fundamental debate, lies the age-old poetic tension between aesthetics and ethics, in which “aestheticism is too often dismissed as a reactionary wolf in the sheep’s skin of apoliticism” (Knickerbocker 4). But reading ecopoetry in the era of the “self-conscious Anthropocene” (Keller) shows differently: the interest in formal strategies, in poetic language and its artifice and self-referentiality, goes hand in hand with, and even appears to reinforce, reader engagement. Its poets are not discouraged by the apparent paradox of believing in the transformative powers of poetry, while playfully highlighting the artifice of their chosen 1.2 em, denying its verisimilitude and transparency and pointing towards its limitations. Thus, figurative devices such as the trope of “speaking nature”, personification and apostrophe, often dismissed as gross anthropocentric pathetic fallacies, also feature largely in the anthology because they allow a reflection on poetic rhetoric and the construction of the human-nonhuman voice. The poets are thus self-consciously artificial, acutely aware of the 1.2 em and tradition they are writing in and in which they deliberately show themselves groping towards a voice. As the first poem of the anthology confirms in its introduction (“of course poems that start ‘oh this was a dream’ are dull”) the metapoetical tendency is considered an essential feature of contemporary ecopoetry always critical of its own writing processes and preconceptions, foregrounding the textual as it asks the reader to be attentive to its modes of representation.

John Wedgwood Clarke’s “Red River at the A30 Culvert”, is archetypal in this aspect. With this text, the poet earnestly and explicitly aims to set right the lack of poems about “the polluted, post-industrial and ugly” (“Red River”), in short doing his duty “to hold the slimy in view” (Morton, 159) at the same time as he asks for a reconception of nature poetry. Almost paradoxically, in his rejection of traditional nature poetry, the poet uses the highly artificial poetic convention of giving voice to the non-human so as to make the reader “listen to a polluted river5”. Horace’s “Fountain of Bandusia” (Ode III, 13), quoted in epigraph (Fies nobelium tu quoque fontutium” – You too will be famous, stream/[for I celebrate you…]”) is the exemplar of a tradition that Clarke seeks here to overwrite. His poem ironically deconstructs Horace’s celebration of the fountain’s purity (only equaled in dignity by the poet’s diction), by giving voice to the polluted culvert, preventing idealization through demystifying realism (devoid of “entablature, columns, mysteries”) as he purposefully collides associations of dirt with purity: “I’m the dirtiest of white noise/Bright as a chlorinated fountain/blowing into the dark down/ A waste chute”. By placing the poem under the ironic aegis of Horace’s ode, Clarke is conscious of imagining the voice of the “Red River” through the highly artificial trope of “speaking nature”, using its artificiality to transform the ecological concept of “ecotone” (meetings of biomes) into a metaphor of creative processes where nature and formal traditions meet.

In the same line but with more insistence on self-referential reflection, Jo Clement’s “Wild Camp” engages dialogically with the contradictions of the poetic voice. Breaking down the linearity of the poem, two distinct and competing vocalic spaces are materialized on the page by alternating roman and italic type. This doubling, or modulation, of the speaker’s voice, opposes the conventions of lyric nature poetry (signified by the italics, a “personalising” device in its imitation of manuscript), to the more direct plain style, in which natural environment is not separated from political realities:

To hell with the abbey
we found a place between the pebbles —

                            look, a heron by the edges, peripheral
                                                      flies over

so here we are, bivvied by the Tweed like two rocks
and yeah, I suppose the patriarchy won’t have fucked off

The use of italics to figure the “poetic” mode foregrounds the artificiality and obliqueness of conventional poetic speech and the aesthetic distance with nature it implies. The first line “to hell with the abbey” suggests a rejection of Romantic aesthetics (recalling Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”), confirmed in the last stanza by the speaker’s annoyance at the seeming impossibility of “writ[ing]/a poem without a Gypsy in it”. The lyric epiphany, signalled by the dash, intrudes on and interrupts the speaker’s plain speech, calling attention away from the world to a romanticized, picturesque vision of nature (signified by the archetypal, even clichéd images of heron and angler). Typically, the lyrical passages are introduced by the codified vocal address to an unspecified interlocutor: “look, a heron”, “see the angler”, “listen, the birds”. Although the poem highlights the artificiality of conventional nature poetry, it also recognizes itself as a highly artificial construct by foregrounding its own internal divisions. What it rejects is the single-mindedness and exclusionary vision of conventional nature poetry which it opposes to an enmeshed appreciation of the world, where gender and minority rights are intrinsically linked to our understanding and relationship with environment.

1.she is a crossbreed
2.of Rosa chinensis,Rosa gigantea & other species
3.including Rosa gallica & Rosa canina
4.of which, only the latter, is native to the British Isles
7. Flower with a thousand faces, six thousand five hundred
8. tongues & almost as many names

Divided into fourteen numbered lines, the poem provides a botanical description of the rose, its attempt at encyclopaedic objectivity and avoidance of the habitual symbolification of flowers, deliberately derailed by the startling initial personification of the flower (“she”), suggesting an implicit comparison with the poet herself. Exploring the origins of the rose, through a reminder of its links with colonization and globalisation, the rose is shown to be a highly artificial, constructed product. “A flower with a thousand faces”, a “crossbreed”, the rose defies any “native-exotic” dualities (Ryan, 116). In its essential hybridity (signified linguistically by the Latin italics and Chinese logogram), it is a simple as it is a complex, both multiple and unique, constructed through layers of time (“estimated at thirty-five million years old”). The sonnet ends on a variation of Gertrude Stein’s famous recursive phrase, confusing the proper and common noun, unnaming and naming the flower in the same gesture: “13. She becomes what she is/14. 玫瑰, गुलाब, rose.” In renewing the trope of the rose by unearthing its cultural roots, the poem invites us to reconsider what makes a flower “natural” and, conversely, what makes a trope “artificial”. By exploring what makes a rose a rose, Estruch also asks us to question what makes a sonnet a sonnet. By fragmenting the fixed form into a listicle, and hollowing out the sonnet’s dialectic structure, the sonnet itself is revealed as an equally artificial and malleable construct.

Furthering this metapoetic exploration of lyric traditions and forms, Sean Borodale, perhaps inspired by ecologist Aldo Leopold’s famous phrase “Thinking like a mountain”, stages his struggle to give voice to a mountain in his poem “Air as a Mineral Disturbed”:

The voice is a sculptural possibility/ a temporal crystal. / I can feel that I am growing voice crystals at the verge of a mouth. / I feel them manifest their cone tips. / […] I feel the shapes of it/ in the voice struggling in angles and distance. /I feel the voice in unsurfaced volumes/ […] I see the soapy sun. / I cannot see it but through this rock. /The arbitrary answer is my own. /A reference to no voice. / Long tunnel. Swirling heating air. Huge giant. / Was it mine, was it ours?

To give voice to a mountain is precisely what Clark calls the “art of the human limit or border” (62). There is indeed, seemingly, nothing less human than minerality, “a stumbling block to anthropocentrism” (Cohen, 6). Yet the speaker suggests a potential melding of bodies in the striking passage from the lyric “I” to the indeterminate article of inert matter within the same line: “I am growing voice crystals at the verge of a mouth”. As the poem seeks to materialize the elusive lithic voice, “struggling in angles and distance”, it also highlights its own “verges”, to use Borodale’s tem. The limits between poetry and prose are materialized by the inclusion of forward slashes, conventionally used in quotations so as to visualize line-breaks. This simple yet effective device highlights the sutures of the free verse but also seems to imply a succession of unresolved alternatives, inscribing uncertainty in the print itself. It is within this metapoetic awareness that the reader follows the poet’s moving away from the human voice towards a “reference to no voice”. If the poet’s primary aim is ultimately deemed a fallacy or an impossibility (“the arbitrary answer is my own”), it is the poetic struggle to give expression to the inanimate, the “sculptural possibility” in an encounter that defies expectations, that become here the metapoetic subject of the poem. In all its highlighted artifice, the poem reminds us, quite simply, that our perception of the non-human can only ever be limited by the anthropocentric forms we use to mediate it.


Despite the threat of apocalypse looming over the collection, the belief in the staying power of poetry and humankind’s infinitely potential and versatile expressive capabilities, remains strong, as suggested by the last lines of Teresa Dzieglewicz’s “Confluence. after Standing Rock”: “We know the world end/ is never an end, but always a mouth instead”. The image of the mouth, also explored in Sean Borodale’s poem, is reminiscent of W.H. Auden’s famous, but often only partially-quoted line, “poetry makes nothing happen […]/ it survives, /a way of happening, a mouth”. If ecopoetry cannot be expected to actively modify entrenched patterns of behaviour, it can however be expected to survive in the ways it affects our body and consciousness, continually interrogating our representations of reality and thus our ways of relating to the world. When poetry disturbs reading practises through formal experiment and expresses a resistance to conventional modes of representation, it can, according to Joan Retallack, “enact interrogations into [the contemporary moment’s] most problematic structures” and foster the “investigative engagement” of the reader (“What is Experimental Poetry”). Effectively playing on “estrangement effects” (Gregson) no longer reserved to radically experimental poetry, the poets of the anthology attempt to forge a wide-ranging (and, hopefully, widely-read) model, or standard, of ecopoetry for a time of crisis. Keenly aware of postmodern issues of self-reflexivity, irony, and the failures of language to represent reality, they also earnestly believe in the importance of the political and ethical issues they raise and in the capabilities of poetry to address (if not redress) them. In a genre usually conceived to be chastening, the ecopoetry studied here is unusual in its foregrounding of formal games, poetic artifice and pleasurable (while disruptive) reading effects, over more direct, or severe, modes of representation. This does not, however, encourage the reader to take refuge in textuality’s hall of mirrors, but rather tries to re-focus our attention on the world through an emphasis on the materiality of text and, through this, to remind us that the body of the poem, the self and the world act as an organic continuum. A renewed focus on materiality can enchant the world, to use Jane Bennett’s term, the intensity of sense perception being also what, in Heideggerian fashion, unconceals and brings forth the world. Thus, even as it deplores, admonishes or warns the reader of impending doom, the climate crisis poetry we have seen here also works against the prevailing modern narrative of disenchantment, offering “moments of enchantment6” and potentially “propelling ethical generosity” (Bennet, 3) through its very struggle to give voice to the climate crisis.

Works Cited

Auje, Andrew J., O’Brien, Eugene, Contemporary Irish Poetry and the Climate Crisis, London, Routledge, 2021.

Banerjee, Subhankar, Demos, T.J., Scott, Emily Eliza, The Routledge Companion to Contemporary Arts, Visual Culture, and Climate Change, London, Routledge, 2021.

Bennett, Jane, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2016.

Buell, Frederick, From Apocalypse to Way of Life. Environmental Crisis in the American Century, New York/London, Routledge, 2003.

Buell, Laurence, The Environmental Imagination, Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press, 1995.

Clark, Timothy, The Value of Ecocriticism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Gregson, Ian, Contemporary Poetry and Postmodernism. Dialogue and Estrangement, London, Macmillan, 1996.

Griffiths, Matthew, The New Poetics of Climate Change. Modern Aesthetics for a Warming World, London, Bloomsbury, 2017.

Introduction to Erasure Poems − with Karen McCarthy Woolf and Julia Bird”, The Poetry Society, 2021. Online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQD4AD89vXE, (consulted 28/07/2022).

Keller, Lynn, Recomposing Ecopoetics. North American Poetry of the Self-Conscious Anthropocene, Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 2017.

Kinsella, John, Contrary Rhetoric. Lectures on Landscape and Language, Fremantle, Fremantle Press, 2008.

Knickerbocker, Scott, Ecopoetics. The Language of Nature, the Nature of Language, Boston, The University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.

Mallarmé, Stéphane, Œuvres Complètes t.II, Paris, Gallimard (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade), 2003.

Ecocene: Cappadocia Journal of Environmental Humanities, n°1 (2), 2020, pp. 32-46.

Morton, Timothy, Ecology Without Nature. Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics, Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press, 2009.

Moses, Michele, “Why the Polar Bear is an Indisputable Image of Climate Change”, The New Yorker, 2018. Online: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-appearances/why-the-polar-bear-is-the-undisputed-image-of-climate-change, (consulted 28/07/2022).

Red River. Listening to a Polluted River” (About), 2020. Online: https://redriverpoetry.com/about, (consulted 29/07/2022).

Retallack, Joan, “What is Experimental Poetry and Why Do We Need It”, Jacket Magazine, n°32, 2007. Online: http://jacketmagazine.com/32/p-retallack.shtml, (consulted 28/07/2022).

Simpson, Kate, Out of Time. Poetry from the Climate Emergency, Scarborough, Valley Press, 2021.

Skinner, Jonathan, “Gardens of Resistance, Gilles Clément, New Poetics and Future Landscapes”, Qui Parle, 19/2, Spring/Summer 2011, pp. 259-274.

1Life, Re-Scaled. The Biological Imagination in Twenty-First-Century Literature and Performance, Cambridge, OpenBook Publishers, 2022.


3 A small selection of publications from 2019 onwards: Planet in Peril (Isabelle Kenyon, Fly on the Wall Press, 2019), 100 Poems to Save the Earth (Zoe Brigley, Kristian Evans, Seren Press, 2021), No other Place to Stand: An Anthology of Climate Change (Jordan Hamel, Erik Kennedy, Essa Ranapiri, Rebecca Hawkes, AUP, 2022), Poetry Rebellion (Paul Evans, Batsford, 2021), Poetry for the Planet (Julia Kaylock, Denise O Kagan, Litoria Press, 2021), Chaos (Christine de Luca, George Szirtes, Philip Terry, Anna Johnson, Patrician Press, 2020), California, Fire and Water: A Climate Crisis Anthology (Molly Fisk, Story Street Press, 2020), without speaking of individual poet’s collections, and collections mixing prose and poetry such as Watch Your Head: Artists and Writers Respond to the Climate Crisis (Kathryn Mockler, Coach House Books, 2020), or Open Your Eyes: An Anthology on Climate Change (Vinita Agrawal, Hawakal, 2020).

4 Tom Philips’ A Humument, A Treated Victorian Novel, a work in progress spanning from 1966 to 2016, is a hybrid object between a piece of art and transformed novel, created by a process of deletion and reconstruction of the text found in W.H. Mallock’s 1892 novel A Human Document (giving Philips his own title, by a process of letter erasure: A Human Document).


6 Defined by Bennett as “a surprising encounter, a meeting with something you did not expect and are not fully prepared to engage. Contained within this surprise state are (1) a pleasurable feeling of being charmed by the novel and yet unprocessed encounter and (2) a more unheimlich (uncanny) feeling of being disrupted or torn out of one’s default sensory-psychic-intellectual disposition” (5).