From the outset, environmental change is the synonymous springboard for the poems in The Ginkgo Prize Ecopoetry Anthology 2019, which brings together a multitude of poetic voices, insisting on environmental change (Ginkgo 2021).
It is interesting that these voices are not the usual scientific representation of environmental change, which is refreshing. For decades, scientists have been warning us about the effects of environmental damage, yet we are still experiencing dangerous changes to our ecosystem. In short, many of us are not listening to the scientists. According to Jade Cuttle, the problem is that ‘science appeals to the areas of the brain that values logic and reason’ (2020). Whereas, reading artistic literature strengthens empathy in readers and can enable changes in readers’ personalities (Oatley 2012). Poetry is one of the earliest forms of artistic literature, so this gives me a spark of hope. By developing a symbiotic relationship with science, is it possible that artistic literature could engage with more people who will, in turn, do more to save the environment? If so, which literary device will persuade us to do our bit?
The answer is unlocked by Sue Riley’s winning and opening poem, from The Ginkgo Prize Ecopoetry Anthology 2019, ‘A Polar Bear from Norilsk’. Riley personifies the polar bear who says, ‘if my feet were not sore from hard-black top’ (2019: 9). The bear speaks using the first person point of view and tells the reader how she feels in a poetic monologue. By attributing personal nature and human characteristics onto the bear, Riley and the other Ginkgo poets engage with individuals ‘at a deeper and potentially more affective level’ than science, because ecopoetry ‘is coded beyond content into the fundamental stratigraphical properties of the poetic form ’ (Cuttle 2020). Keith Oatley describes fiction as ‘simulations that run on minds’ (2012). Through empathetic processes In literary art, such as poetry, fiction or even non-fiction, readers can be both themselves and literary characters they read about (Oatley 2012), such as Riley’s polar bear. As I read, becoming the polar bear, through personification and empathy, I felt distressed and irresponsible.
Personification extends to Eleanor Page’s highly commended poem, ‘Eat Me’, which personifies the sea. The sea tells us to allow our children to have a ‘trusting gulp’ of its polluted water and then ‘watch one fail’ (Page 2019: 25). As a mother, this certainly affected me. The use of personification continues with second prize winner Anne McDonnell giving the river a ‘stilted face’ in her poem, ‘Once There Were Fish’ (2019: 11). Again by using personification, the poets subtly manipulate those who have a high cultural licence for anthropocentric attitudes. Runner up, Joanna Guthrie’s poem, ‘Waiting’, describes branches with ‘hands full of offerings’ and trees ‘standing solemn’ (2019: 15). Tim Kiely’s highly commended poem, ‘It is the Trees,’ tells us about ‘trees who weep openly’ (2019: 17). These approaches to personification are reminiscent of the ‘pathetic fallacy’ meaning humans have an instinctive tendency to see their emotions reflected in the environment: seeing everything centred on ourselves. I wonder if this has been a purposeful move by the poets’ to open the eyes of individuals with even the most anthropocentric attitudes.
Using an empirically based conception of literary art, which is carefully constructed, enables change (Oatley 2012). By basing their ideas in science and utilising the literary device personification, the poets included in The Ginkgo Prize Ecopoetry Anthology 2019, have created a magnificent symbiosis between science and artistic literature, which shows another audience that our environment is careening into oblivion, and I for one, am taking action. It is long past the time when we should have changed our narcissistic aloofness to our ecosystem (Barry 2017).
Barry, P. (2017) Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press
Cuttle, J. (2020) Re-examining the Poem as Ecological Terreau [online]. Available from <https://ginkgoprize.com/re-examining-the-poem-as-ecological-terreau/> [12 March 2023]
Guthrie, J. (2019) Waiting [online]. Available from <https://ginkgoprize.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/2019-Ginkgo_Visual-Guide.pdf> [18 February 2021]
Kiely, T. (2019) It is the Trees [online]. Available from <https://ginkgoprize.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/2019-Ginkgo_Visual-Guide.pdf> [12 March 2023]
McDonnell, A. (2019) Once There Were Fish [online]. Available from <https://ginkgoprize.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/2019-Ginkgo_Visual-Guide.pdf> [18 February 2021]
Oatley, Keith. (2012). ‘The cognitive science of fiction’. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science 3 (4), 425-430
Page, E. (2019) Eat Me [online]. Available from <https://ginkgoprize.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/2019-Ginkgo_Visual-Guide.pdf> [12 March 2023]
Riley, S. (2019) A Polar Bear from Norilsk [online]. Available from <https://ginkgoprize.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/2019-Ginkgo_Visual-Guide.pdf> [12 March 2023]