- The New Poetics of Climate Change: Modernist Aesthetics for a Warming World by Matthew Griffiths
Matthew Griffiths's The New Poetics of Climate Change is the latest offering from Blooms-bury's Environmental Cultures Series edited by Greg Garrard and Richard Kerridge, whose own works have helped extend ecocriticism's impact beyond its first, second (and perhaps now third) waves. Their series intends to provide "the latest cutting-edge research on the diverse ways in which culture has responded to the age of environmental crisis," an undertaking that could not be more welcome in modernist studies, a field in which so many texts and authors grapple with the impacts of industrial modernity.1
Griffiths's book joins Kelly Sultzbach's Ecocriticism in the Modernist Imagination (Cambridge University Press, 2016), Joshua Schuster's The Ecology of Modernism (University of Alabama Press, 2016), and Jesse Oak Taylor's The Sky of Our Manufacture (University of Virginia Press, 2016) in the recent spate of work from scholars whose transatlantic efforts underscore the significance of ecocriticism beyond trendy greening. Just as modernist literature has helped correct earlier ecocritical limitations by expanding the canon of environmentally oriented texts, so too these books demonstrate the rich potential for ecocritical insights to aid the study of modernist texts, whose entangled agencies, planetary toggling, and modes of abstraction avant la lettre offer urgently needed tools for expanding intellectual faculties as we register new degrees of environmental transformation.
The New Poetics of Climate Change is charged with this mission, uncovering the practical implications of aesthetic debates and offering original readings of poems by Wallace Stevens, Basil Bunting, David Jones, and Jorie Graham, poets whose work challenges any lingering as- sumptions [End Page 613] that modernists "dislike" nature. Like Schuster's and Taylor's, Griffiths's argument deploys literary form as the evidential basis for cultural change. And while Griffiths also engages with Alex Trexler's Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change (University of Virginia Press, 2015), he turns from the novel to poetry as he tracks the impact climate has wrought upon the deep structures of the literary imagination. As its title suggests, The New Poetics of Climate Change presents modernist poetry as capacious and plastic, able to mold habits of thinking more effectively than other creative forms. This premise underscores the importance of poetic form in the evolution of ecocriticism.
But two larger-order concerns distract from Griffiths's otherwise thorough research, unusual pairings, and astute close readings. First, there is the ambiguity of the volume's title. It suggests a discussion that reframes or renovates our understanding of poetics in an era defined by anthropogenic climate change. Yet I leave without a definitive understanding of what "the new poetics of climate change" pinpoints. The subtitle could indicate that the "new poetics" of today is characterized by a return to "modernist poetics." If so, then what precisely is "new"? The context? The reception? Furthermore, what is the difference between "modernist poetics" and the subtitle's "modernist aesthetics"? The two phrases overlap but are not synonymous. Should readers conflate them? We are largely left to define these central terms on our own.
Griffiths's central claim, however, is evident at both beginning and end. The first chapter undertakes a comparative analysis of two "climate change poems" (6), both written in 2009, by UK poets Andrew Motion and Frances Presley. Close reading privileges Presley's modernist formal choices (which are polyvocal, fragmented, uncertain, conflicted) over Motion's more traditional approach to nature poetry via a sonnet sequence. Commissioned to support the launch of the 10:10 carbon reduction, Motion's sonnets narrate the crisis using the lyric "I," one of several Romantic leanings that, for Griffiths, oversimplifies nature as a both entity and category.
While I read Motion's sequence as Victorian elegy—solidly in the lineage of Tennyson's In Memoriam, A. H. H. with all those "dark houses," "silent" streets, and "guilt"-ridden bouts of insomnia—Griffiths's point still stands, convincingly argued with a...