Saturday, January 20, 2018



A Change of Climate edited by Sam Illingworth and Dan Simpson
(Independently published, 2017)

 [Previously published in A Change of Climate]

On Silence

Poetry has a special relationship with silence and - dare I say it - with a sense of inarticulacy. Perhaps I’m just speaking personally: ever since I was a child, I’ve been drawn to the spare, condensed form of the poem and its relationship to blank space. As Glyn Maxwell puts it in his Ars Poetica On Poetry:

Poets work with two materials, one's black, one's white…You want to hear the whiteness eating? Write out the lyrics of a song you love … If you strip the music off it, it dies in the whiteness, can't breathe there.

I’ve been fascinated by the sense I get that I can express myself in poems in a way I can’t in everyday speech or even in other written forms. For me, poetry really is a ‘momentary stay against confusion’, to quote Robert Frost. But poetry is also, by its very nature, an allusive (and perhaps elusive) medium. We’re often striving towards the unsaid, dreaming about something that language can’t quite catch in its net. The best poem for me is always the one I haven’t written yet, its sense of potential and infinite possibility. This is particularly true of poetry about climate change. 

In summer 2016, I spent several weeks sleeping next to the calving face of the huge Knud Rasmussen glacier in East Greenland as part of a mountaineering trip. My intention was to write about the landscape I was in, but my attempts failed again and again. These glaciers are changing at a startling rate. They have lost around nine trillion tonnes of ice in the past century and that rate of loss has only increased over time. How could I reconcile that with the beauty of the calving, the sense of mystery I felt when staring down into a crevasse or moulin? How could I write about a shifting landscape in a way that was neither overly romantic nor overly bleak?

Talking about climate change is difficult. You risk over-dramatising your subject or else seeming dry, reeling off a list of statistics. This is where poetry - with its unique capacity to hold paradox - can find a fitting language. This unique anthology showcases that to brilliant effect. In ‘The Climate of Our Conversations’, S.B. Banks reflects: ‘the brisket / is here and I still don’t know / how to have a conversation.’ The narrator reflects on statistics and facts, admitting:

There are certain words I can't say. 
Other words I can, 
but with the risk of a sigh…

Writing about climate change comes with a risk of hypocrisy too and - again - poetry can interrogate that. As a writer from the North East Derbyshire coalfields, that’s something I’m always acutely aware of. These uncomfortable juxtapositions are captured in Emily Cotterill’s brilliant poem ‘SLAG’:

I have loved coal,
like a teenage girl loves an older guitarist
with a rough black smudge of eyeliner.

Many of the poems in this varied collection deal with the contradictions and confusions of mapping climate change through literature by adopting a surreal approach: in Michael Conley’s ‘We are no longer interested in the sea’, people gather to pelt the oceans with stones and kitchen implements. Kim Goldberg’s ‘The Keys of the Piano’ imagines an ‘annual extinction conference.’ Ben Norris’ ‘Planet Earth II’ describes a manufactured planet:

Planet Earth II was designed in California and assembled in China
Planet Earth II is repayable in easy monthly instalments
Planet Earth II allows you to love the right person first time round

There are dystopian visions, inevitably. But they are also nuanced, wry and hopeful by their very existence - in talking about climate change through poetry, we are broadening the conversation. This collection features thrilling new work from Carrie Etter and Sarah Westcott, but it also introduced me to new voices too. 

When I began the project of trying to write about (or perhaps write ‘out of’) East Greenland, it was clear to me that one register, one voice would never be enough. The responses in this anthology are often in different languages and represent different cultural responses to climate change, reflecting the global nature of debate. My own response was a collaboration with a filmmaker and a composer, a piece called ‘The Singing Glacier’. We cast these words, images and ideas into the silence and hope to hear something back. As the poet Andrew Greig puts it:

She would say to discover
the true depth of a well, 
drop a stone,
start counting.


Helen Mort was born in Sheffield. Her first collection Division Street won the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize. Her second collection No Map Could Show Them (Chatto & Windus) is a PBS Recommendation. She blogs at Freefall, her first novel is forthcoming from Chatto in 2019, and she lectures in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. ​