Stephanie Green: Nature poetry or Eco-poetry?

Sunday 10 March 2013

At Saturday morning's Poetry Breakfast, which was also webcast, there was much talk of the relationships between ecology, poetry, history and the natural world by the panel. And the thorny issue of definitions came to the fore.

I'm not sure Mandy Haggith talks to trees but she certainly lies under an aspern tree near her sea-croft in Assynt to learn from trees – getting permission to be dormant for a few months, or to have roots, for instance.  In fact, she is editing an anthology of poems about trees 'Tree Alphabet' based on the ogham (Celtic) runes which look like little trees.  Does she write eco-poetry?  Enviromental issues are the day job.  In her poetry, she says, it's more a response of wonder.

A lecturer at Crichton Campus, Glasgow University in Dumfries, David Borthwick's  research interest is eco-poetry, but he was hesitant about this 'new-fangled' term -since there is no school and it is not prescriptive.  Stressing a continuity with the Romantics, he said  the modern development is more an awareness of  our effects on nature, and trying to be less human-centric.

Artist Carry Ackroyd

And after the  Romantics, whether it was possible to write about the Lake District  and say something new was something poet and Director of the Wordsworth Trust, Andrew Forster is concerned.  Finally, artist, Carry Akroyd, explained how she first became interested in John Clare's poems. Just as Clare documented the changes to rural life, both threatening wildlife and  the landless poor, dispossessed by enclosures, Carry Akroyd too cares deeply about the threat to the Northamptonshire landscape and rural life by intensive agriculture.  She also delighted us with a wonderful imitation of various bird calls as she performed one of his poems.

It seemed I could do no better than rush down, after the discussion was over, to see her exhibition at the Preservation Trust Museum:

'Found in the Fields' is a series of lithographs in dialogue with the poetry of the 'peasant' poet John Clare.  Carry's bold, stylized lithographs, both in line and colour, contrast sweeping perspectives of farmland  and geometric trees,  with detailed foregrounded birds and creatures:  ants, worms, snails and weeds which is farming 'as seen from the mud'.  They capture the essence of wildness and my favourite is the atmospheric 'Rookery.'

Snippets of Clare's poetry appear in the pictures, scribbled here and there, merging into the design:

'Both milkmaids* shouts and herdsmans *call/

Have vanished/

with the green'

perhaps sums up the general tenor – but these pictures are not only laments but express a joy in nature close-up.

You can see the lithographs and more of Carry's work on: