Caught by the River

In the gap between the language

Will Burns | 18th October 2014


By Will Burns.

There can be no shortage of poems in English that take as their subject (or their apparent subject) what might loosely be termed ‘the natural world’ and it can no doubt seem to some a reactionary subject matter, particularly during a period in history dominated by seemingly antithetical motifs – the speed of technological advancement, newer and more wide-reaching methods of communication, an apparently ever-shrinking geographical understanding of the world. Surely there are more urgent issues, more prescient and modern concerns than landscape and wildlife? I would argue not, and the most important reason for me taking this position is that I believe much of what we think we admire in the natural world is in fact an admiration of the language of the natural world. The western linguistic tradition of naming rivers, animals, hills and plants and to classify or de-mark aspects of the landscape is the real driver of our collective nature experience, and this has long been the case. As a culture we love maps, field guides and check lists at least as much as we love actual observation of the exact way a magpie lands on a branch. We seek an interface between a world that exists somewhere between our memory and our imagination and the world in which we practically live. It is in this gap between the language of nature and the natural phenomena itself that we find the poem and through it begin to interrogate our relationship with our surroundings, the other species on the planet and the more ambitious ideas that follow – ideas of identity, language, history and politics – in a true and meaningful way to create an important, modern even radical literature.

It’s certainly true that these natural phenomena – interactions with wild animals, descriptions of wilderness, landscape or weather loom large in our literature and are as popular today as ever. But why should this be now, in our era of unprecedented travel opportunities? In a period where the internet has given us as individuals access to images, knowledge and insight from each and every corner of the globe, no matter how wild, exotic or remote? The answer lies in the sense of alienation, a symptom of our current de-regulated, neoliberal capitalism, which has sundered us from our environment, and done so as efficiently and profoundly as it has each of us from the true nature of our economy and its infrastructure. For proof we need only look at the ease with which climate change, loss of species, habitat destruction or a multitude of other violent and alarming ecological repercussions of modern capitalism can be ignored at an individual level and at a Governmental level, actively denied.

The capitalism with which we find ourselves saddled, with its fetish for property ownership and robust protection of inherited wealth and more specifically land, has removed us from the very spaces where we might experience habitat and species, it has turned wild animals, plants and whole eco-systems into commodities with such force that even the language of conservation is now loaded with commercialism. The engine of all this is that poisonous kernel at the very heart of our current capitalism – private property. So art, writing, painting, photography – by definition truly communal activities, containing an infinite interaction between author and reader, becomes the vehicle to carry us, through power of description, or recall, back out into a wilder and wider world, to illuminate the landscape for us again, through history or anthropology or biology. Or in another, albeit slightly nebulous sense, to de-luminate it; to re-make the familiar as something strange and therefore beautiful.

At its most problematic, as far as poetry is concerned, this sense of alienation can lead to the clumsy poetic strategy of anthropomorphism. For me, this poses a political problem as well as a stylistic one, it is a decision taken by the poet to create poetry that is a kind of occupation, or ownership, and to my mind betrays the narcissism that comes all too easily to human analysis. Writing about an animal, say, should generate art that is stranger and more ambitious than simply a version of a creature with something like human consciousness seeking to describe thoughts or feelings that only exist in the realm of the author’s human experience. This type of writing is untruthful. You are not a fish. Your real experience is that of catching, killing and eating fish. Or perhaps, importantly, only one of those three things.

Those moments in which we experience the natural world are both obvious and rich material for thorough and broad examinations of how we live, of how we want to live, of our relationship with our environments and therefore more specifically with our ideas about property, ownership, globalism, capital and alienation. These moments aren’t solipsistic ‘poetic moments’, but shared positions examined through the speaker of the poem, and pregnant with the ideas and concerns of the present, not of a romantic or nostalgic past. So the tension that exists between a folk memory of wilderness and our cultural worship of property is the real itch that we are scratching when it seems that all we are doing is little more than reading or writing about birds, or woods, or rivers, or the sea.

Will Burns’ debut pamphlet, Faber New Poets 10, is published by Faber & Faber, £5 from the Caught by the River shop.
See the Faber New Poets on tour.