While every month is poetry month at my house, I would be remiss in not remarking on it outside the confines of my comfy corner of the couch where I curl up to read. Happy Poetry Month y’all!

One of my favorite podcasts is called What Could Possibly Go Right? Hosted by Vicki Robins, the usually 30 minute show, has guests who Robins talks to about what could possibly go right given all the climate crap and other ugly in the world. This last week her guest was the poet Ellen Bass, who is currently Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. 

It is a wonderful conversation in which they discuss how poetry is about discovery and transformation. Bass said, “Why I think most people write poems is so that at the end, they will not be the same person they were before they wrote the poem.” Bass is a poet who believes that if you already know what the poem is really about before you write it, there is no sense in writing it. She wants to be a different person at the end of it. I don’t write poetry so can’t speak to that aspect of it, but as a reader one of the things I value most about a good poem is how it helps me see the world differently. 

In talking about poetry in relation to the climate emergency, one of them, I can’t remember which one, said, “poetry is so nourishing, and sustaining, and gives us a chance to grieve, and gives us a chance to celebrate.” Yes! I said out loud, as I was scrubbing the bathroom sink because podcast listening time is Sundays when I am doing household chores. 

About three years ago I came to understand that I was suffering from grief over what we are doing to the planet and all the life we are losing on a daily basis. It was pretty bad for awhile. The grief will never go away, but these days it waxes and wanes and sometimes I forget about it completely for most of a day. Other times I burst into tears or feel a deep kind of panic and anger. Much of the time it is a dull ache that has become part of my being. I find poetry does just what they said in the podcast. It nourishes me, and helps me grieve, but it also makes my heart soar over all the beauty that is still in the world. Because in spite of everything, the world still is beautiful.

I just finished Maxine Kumin’s book Where I Live: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010. A marvelous collection that I highly recommend. Here is one of her poems that spoke to my grief.

Bringing Down the Birds

Does it make you wince to hear
how the last of the world’s great auks
were scalded to death on the Newfoundland coast
in vats of boiling water so that
birdshot would not mutilate the feathers
that stuffed the mattress your great-grandparents
lay upon, begetting your forebears?

Are you uncomfortable reading how
the flocks of passenger pigeons
that closed over the sky like an eyelid
the millions that roared like thunder
like trains, like tornados were wiped out, expunged
in a free-for-all a hundred years gone?
Can you bear the metaphor in how it was done?

Pet pigeons, their eyelids sewn, were tied
to stools a few feet off the ground until
hordes of their kind swooped overhead.
Released, their downward flutter lured 
the multitude who were smothered in nets
while trappers leaped among them
snapping their necks with pincers.
The feathers from fifty pigeons
added up to a pound of bedding.

Does it help to name the one-or-two-of-a-kind
Martha or Rollie and exhibit them in a zoo
a kindly zoo with moats in place of wire
or clone from fished-up bits of DNA
a creature rather like the creature
it had been, left to the whim of nature?

Would bringing the ivorybill back from deep woods
to a greenhouse earth placate the gods?
The harlequin-patterned Labrador duck
the dowdy heath hen, the gregarious Carolina parakeet
that once bloomed like daffodils in flight,
if science could reconstruct them, how long
would it take us logging and drilling and storing up
treasures to do them all in again?


And now I understand what a “stool pigeon” really was and will never hear that phrase the same way again. 

Garden Notes

scilla blooming

It pretty much rained here off and on all last week and the days have turned chilly again. In spite of that, the radish and carrots I seeded in the box on my deck have sprouted. And today, James and I spent a little while out in the garden clearing the bed where the peas will grow this year and putting in the stakes for the twine trellising. Of course the Dashwoods were on hand to assist. Elinor managed to nab a big fat earthworm.

The arugula is coming up, still too tiny to use. But, the violets, nettles, and bunching onion are all good for picking and got added into dinner this evening. The trees around the neighborhood are beginning to have a fuzzy green haze about them as their leaves start to unfurl. Frost is likely Monday and Tuesday so it’s not full speed ahead yet. But, everything is waking up! 

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14 thoughts on “Poetry and Climate Grief

  1. What an incredible (but all too credible, actually) piece of work. I’ve read some of her poetry but now feel drawn to explore more.

    1. She’s very good BIP and writes about lots of different things. She was really good friends with Ann Sexton and has several poems about her in this collection. Also a wonderful poem about her friendship with Stanley Kunitz. 🙂

  2. Thanks for an informative post, Stefanie. Makes me think again about wearing a down-filled ski jacket.

    On another note, would you be interested in a read-along? I just recently bought The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. Just wonder if you would like to read it together with me. My pace is slow and I’m very flexible about the time frame. Maybe throughout this Spring. Anyway, just a thought. If you’re int. then maybe I’ll post and see who else might be interested to join. 🙂

    1. Hi Arti, thanks for the read along invite! I think I will have pass on this one as I seem to have gotten myself into several book group commitments after years of not being in any.

  3. The lengths and depths of human cruelty and greed towards nature never cease to amaze me… reading about the craze for feathers during the heights of the ornate hat years (late 19th/early 20th century) in the book The Feather Thief (great book by the way) educated me a lot about the insatiable appetite for birds as fashion – so sad!

    I’ve heard of Maxine Kumin for years and haven’t really dug into her poetry. There’s another one for the list!

    1. Oh yes, The Feather Thief! I haven’t read it but I have read about it and yeah, the things we have done for fashion 🙁 Kumin is very good, accessible and writes about lots of different things. Hope you get a chance to read her sometime.

  4. Happy Poetry Month, Stefanie! I’m so glad you posted about this. For me, when a poem really connects with me, I just feel like someone gets me. I have not read a lot by Maxine Kumin and this poem was sad. Actually I didn’t know about the Auks until I ran across some information on them via the book The Sixth Extinction. So sad. I can almost understand how things happened a long time ago before we should have known better but to still continue to do things that affect our plant so much is really beyond. I realize i make a lot of decisions which are probably not the best for the planet either but I just wish people with try a little bit harder as even small changes can make a big impact. Thank you for such a thought provoking post!

    1. Thanks Iliana! It is a very sad poem and I debated about posting it but I thought is should be shared because grief should be shared and because it might provide a moment to pause and think about what people, what we, are doing to our beautiful home.

  5. Stefanie, wow, what a wonderful post this is. Amazing. Thank you. I love what you say about poetry – I feel the same way, and the poem here is great, will listen to the podcast too. Yes, I feel the grief too, and there is often a feeling that no one else feels the same way, although I know many people do, which is why we have to keep reading the poems and listening to the great writers who aren’t afraid to express what is happening. My husband is currently building a poetry post for our front yard, I can’t wait to put it up. I love your gardening updates, too. Thanks again Stefanie.

    1. Valorie, sorry, yup, the stool pigeon comment is mine. I have now added a clear marker between poem and me to keep there from being any confusion 🙂

      Thank you for you kind words. Yes! It often feels like no one else is grieving and just going about their business as though there is no disaster slowly unraveling our world. It gets kind of lonely sometimes, so I really appreciate writers who delve into all the feelings with such honesty and who don’t try to then soften it by saying everything will be ok.

      A poetry post? I am intrigued. I hope you are planning on sharing photos and more about the poetry post!

  6. That’s a wonderful/terrible Kumin poem that I hadn’t read before. Thank you?
    I disagree with Bass that the reason “most people write poems is so that at the end, they will not be the same person they were before they wrote the poem.” That sounds too close to what I call “kleenex poetry,” when you feel better after reading/writing it and should throw it away like a used kleenex. (No, don’t peer in, just pitch it.)
    I agree with you, though, that a good poem is one that helps readers see the world differently.

    1. Jeanne, isn’t it a good and terrible poem? There is absolutely no comfort there and I like that Kumin doesn’t try to make us feel better. I think Bass isn’t a “kleenex” kind of poet or advocating for that sort of poetry, only that to her, poetry is a way to discover and learn and transform not just for the reader but the writer too. I got the feeling that she means it as digging deeper beyond what the nugget of an idea is when you sit down to write. If the poet is only going to stay at the surface, there is no point in writing the poem.

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