Matthew Griffiths, The New Poetics of Climate Change: Modernist Aesthetics for a Warming World

Matthew Griffiths, The New Poetics of Climate Change: Modernist Aesthetics for a Warming World  (London: Bloomsbury 2017) 224 pp. £80.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781474282093

Although it is well known that modernist literature did not engage widely in the early days of ecocriticism during the seventies, eighties and nineties, there is now a developed Modernist expression of the Anthropocene. Nonetheless, the title of this book suggests that it will introduce a new ‘Modernist aesthetics’. Moreover, Griffiths states in the abstract of his PhD thesis (from which this monograph seems to have been developed) that he aimed ‘to formulate a critical methodology and poetics that engage with climate change’. Furthermore, Griffiths suggests, albeit as late as Chapter Two, that he will take up Ezra Pound’s ‘exhortation’ and ‘we should make “make it new” new again’ (30). However, rather than offering anything ‘new’, the author seems to offer a justification of why only ‘Modernist aesthetics can articulate the uncertainty of a world in which human activity has divergent effects at the personal, cultural, socio-political, economic and global ecological scales’ (42).

Indeed the first chapter ('Climate Changes Everything' 1-27) is devoted, not to introducing the science of ‘climate change’ nor indeed any new poetics, but to a prolonged vilification of Andrew Motion’s ‘The Sorcerer’s Mirror’ for ‘lyrical, proto-Romantic readings of climate change’ (9) which show Motion to have ‘limited insight’ (5). He states that Motion ‘mis-appropriates traditions of nature poetry’ to engage with climate change (10). This argument becomes even more repetitive when it crops up every now and then to remind the reader that Motion’s poem ‘retains [...] vestiges of [...] outdated ideas’ on climate change (154). Griffiths contends that ‘just as climate change disrupts and disturbs pastoral and Romantic conceptions of nature […] avant-garde writing in the Modernist tradition can offer the opportunity to rethink rather than reinforce conventional reader-writer conventions’ (5). This seems a tenuous argument with which to dismiss the possibility that other poetic traditions can successfully engage with climate change. Motion’s approach to engaging with climate change is then contrasted with a Modernist poem, Frances Presley’s ‘Trinscombe stone’ which ‘makes a fuller engagement than Motion does’ (5) because of her ‘switching between perspectives’(7). Griffiths continues to offer his ‘contention that Modernist-inspired modes of writing are better equipped to articulate climate change and its complexities’ (23). But he keeps repeating this argument rather than really trying to offer substantial evidence to readers who may be need to be convinced.

The title of the second chapter (;A New Climate for Modernism' 29-58) seems to promis that a new poetics of climate change will be addressed. However, Griffiths confines himself to exemplifying the self-consciousness and irony of Modernist poetry. Nonetheless, his analysis of Eliot’s The Waste Land is an interesting illustration of Eliot’s contention that ‘the reception of a literary work necessarily alters with time’ (31). Griffiths then goes on to further demonstrate how the work of Modernist poets supports his thesis. The following chapters on Wallace Stevens, Basil Bunting and David Jones are where Griffiths is far more successful and thought-provoking, although no new poetic aesthetics seem to be evident.

In Chapter Three, Griffiths analyses Wallace Stevens’s poetry. His study of ‘The Snow Man’ is a satisfyingly cogent analysis but, again, any new poetics of climate change is missing. For example, he states that ‘[t]he environment of Stevens' poem is anthropogenic inasmuch as it is the aesthetic creation of the poet, and this complements the opening in which the cold [...] generates the imagination itself’ (64). It is well known that Modernism argues that, for want of another description, ‘mainstream’ literature sets up a series of mediations with the natural world whereas Modernism focuses on the imaginary level.

In Chapter Four ('Basil Bunting and Nature’s Discord' 91-123), the analysis of Bunting’s work is illuminating. Griffiths is again disparaging of a Romantic ‘heritage’. He had already castigated Jonathan Bate for ‘reaffirming [the] influence’ of the Romantic tradition by including Stevens and Buntings in The Song of the Earth for their ‘post-Romantic concern with nature as a subject’ (14). However, Bunting is said to ‘disavow certain egotistical projections of Wordsworthian Romanticism’ (93).

Chapter Five ('David Jones’s Anathemata and the Gratuitous Environment' 125-151) contains very interesting analyses of difficult poetry. But I’m not sure that ‘Jones’s deployment of Modernist poetics [...] is testament to the scope this mode of writing affords to express […] climate change’ (151) to the exclusion of all other poetic traditions. Chapter Six ('The Poems of Our Climate Change') offers examples of contemporary poetry that address elements of climate change. However, Griffiths writes mostly about the cerebral and very obscure poetry of Jorie Graham and her Sea Change. I question whether Griffiths is communicating with an audience who would like to widen their knowledge of Modernist poetics and how poetry written in this tradition affords expression of environmental challenges of today. In his conclusion ('Conclusion: The New Poetics of Climate Change' 175-178) Griffiths has done a curious thing and set out aims which would have been ideally placed in an introduction.

A recent publication by Kelly Sultzbach, her Ecocriticism in the Modernist Imagination: Forster, Woolf, and Auden (Cambridge University Press 2016) illustrates the place of Modernism in ecocriticism. I would contend that if Griffiths had set out to do the same rather than suggest that he was formulating some kind of new poetic aesthetic, his book would have been more successful. In an interview on the Bloomsbury website, Griffiths has acknowledged that climate change and Modernism was not studied when he started his research, because neither fitted in with a ‘Romantic vision of nature’. But he said that his ‘particular interest is in how climate change retrospectively alters our conception of Modernism’. I remain unconvinced that his book has successfully addressed this. If he had briefly acknowledged the scientific understanding of ‘climate change’ whilst addressing a wider audience, other than fans of difficult and obscure Modernist poetry, and been more respectful of other poetic traditions, he could have been more successful in communicating that ‘Modernist aesthetics can ‘articulate the complexities and nuances with which climate change confronts us’ (9-10).

Elizabeth Askey, Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys