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BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE POETRY OF EARTH
WITH CHAPTER-BY-CHAPTER SUMMARY
'The poetry of Earth is never dead,' Keats wrote in his sonnet On the Grasshopper and the Cricket. What is this poetry? It is the abundance, diversity and particularity, which this book explores, not only in the natural world but in human cultures, religions, languages, and of course, poetry -- in the usual sense -- written in these many languages. Those three essential qualities pervade all of Earth's seemingly inexhaustible treasury, which can no longer be taken for granted, since so much of it is being over-exploited, recklessly damaged or even destroyed forever. Poetry, phonetics, theology, ecology and politics are treated as distinct but not separate and the book makes some connections.
Chapter 1, Home on Earth, thinks about what we mean by home. It looks at some of the many different ways in which human beings make their home on Earth, from the Arctic, to the jungles of Mexico, to the Australian outback. It goes on to look at examples of Earth's multiplicity of natural species. Many of these human cultures and natural species and their habitats are under threat, not least from overweening capitalism, which is interested in profit and not in life for its own sake, for its poetry. The Earth itself is in danger.
Chapter 2, Word on Earth, looks at language. There are about 6000 languages spoken on Earth. What is a language? It is a very limited sound system capable of generating an almost unlimited number of sentences. The chapter looks in more detail at the sound system of English -- because that is what I speak. In English just 44 phonemes generate millions of words and millions and millions of sentences. Every language has its own sound system and its own grammar-- the chapter gives many examples. So it is delightful to find that language shares our distinguishing qualities of abundance, diversity, particularity, that give life on Earth its homeliness and its zest.. But sad that like many natural species many languages are becoming extinct, for the same reason: the destruction of their habitat.
Chapter 3, Time on Earth, looks at poetry in the usual sense as a conversation in a particular tradition. For example, Mimi Khalvati's poem quoted here is a conversation with her Persian grandmother and the poem has the Persian form of Rubiyat. The chapter gives plenty more examples, from Nigeria, Chile, Nicaragua, and elsewhere and then looks more closely at the English radical tradition, which is at present marginalised in the fashionable poetry world. It considers poetry and presence, and quotes Blake, such an important poet in the English radical tradition:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And Heaven in a wild flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
That's like the scholastic definition of Eternity: the perfect possession of life all at once tota simul. We look at how the present moment of a poem can contain a whole past and future. That is one thing that makes a good poem: that it says a lot in a little. That's what gives it a strong presence.
Chapter IV, Down to Earth, is about religion. Part 1 is called 'The Poetic Genius and the Spirit of Prophecy'. It begins by turning again to Blake, who saw both how religions have been used for oppression and how they are creations of the poetic genius, that is, poetic ways of describing real natural and cultural forces. In the English radical tradition the struggle to desupernaturalise God -- that is bring God down to Earth and see him for what he is, a human creation -- has gone hand in hand with the struggle for justice.
The chapter then criticises the postmodernism of Don Cupitt, who has written very convincingly about God as a human creation but squanders the other half of his birthright for a mess of postmodernism by ignoring the struggle for justice.
Finally in this Part 1, the chapter goes on to look at liberation theology and how, although they speak in traditional Christian theological terms, they use them more and more metaphorically -- poetically -- for a humanist agenda. For example, Jon Sobrino of El Salvador says that where Christ is now present on Earth and can be met today is in the very poor, whom he calls the crucified people, crucified by the sin of the world, which is overweening capitalism.
Part 2 of this fourth chapter, 'The Human Form Divine' looks at the rather esoteric theology of Trinity and Incarnation as 'poetic creations' and finds them quite illuminating. Incarnation brings us to the communion bread and wine, in which Christ is said to be present, and so back to our theme of poetry and presence.
Chapter V, More Things in Heaven and Earth, is also in two parts. Part 1 looks at the way poetry is connected with 'the deep power of joy'. In more detail, it takes four poets, 3 English and 1 Spanish, Wordsworth (who, of course coined this title phrase), Coleridge, Hopkins and John of the Cross. It offers a non-supernatural reading of 'mystical' poetry.
Part 2 of the chapter is called 'Self flashes off frame and face.' Hopkins loved the philosopher Duns Scotus and his term 'thisness'. The chapter looks at poetry and the thisness of things and people. It is against the postmodernist idea that we have no self, and are just a series of fleeting selves. Finally, regarding a poem as an articulated body of words, it looks at the 'self', the 'thisness', of one particular poem, Kathleen McPhilemy's poem 'Blackthorn'.
The very short last Chapter VI, Mortal Beauty, sums up some of the arguments. If capitalism is threatening the poetry of Earth, what can poetry do about it? Obviously poetry shouldn't just be political propaganda or a political programme. But, in Hopkins' phrase, mortal beauty does this: It keeps warm our wits to the things that are, what good means. And therefore what good does not mean. And as Mary Wollstonecraft wrote to her lover, Gilbert Imlay, 'Imagination is the true fire stolen from heaven' that renders us social by expanding our hearts.
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