Sam Solnick, Poetry and the Anthropocene: Ecology, Biology and Technology in Contemporary British and Irish Poetry

Sam Solnick, Poetry and the Anthropocene: Ecology, Biology and Technology in Contemporary British and Irish Poetry (London: Routledge 2017) xii + 224 pp. £35 EPUB, £75 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-138-941687

In Poetry and the Anthropocene, Sam Solnick considers the way in which contemporary poetry ‘addresses the revolutions the Anthropocene creates in humanity’s condition’ (4). One challenge, as Solnick acknowledges, is that despite the ‘swift take-up’ (7) of the Anthropocene concept in the humanities, the scientific community has yet to decide on its boundaries (4-5); another is the concept’s potential to become ‘totalizing‘, even to encourage ‘a renewed anthropocentrism’ (6). A related difficulty is that of linking poetry to ‘the pragmatics of the environmental movement’ (8), whilst simultaneously reconciling it to a now complex theoretical landscape. As Solnick stresses in his introductory chapter, ‘Poetry and Science’ (1-18), ‘ecological thinking means engaging with the feedbacks and relationships within and between the organic, abiotic materials, the technological and the social’ (10). In practice, this also means challenging existing, ecocritical interpretations of poetry such as that of Ted Hughes (11-12), exploring the ‘Anthropocene disorder’ made manifest in Derek Mahon’s ironic, sometimes ‘blackly comic’ poetry (13), or accepting that a ‘search engine’ as well as a ‘philological dictionary’ may be needed to grasp Jeremy Prynne’s poetry, which actively engages with ‘brain physiognomy, database systems, pharmacology, spacetime, geology, and, crucially [...] biochemistry’ (14). But this is not simply a question of the ways in which poetry speaks for science – or nature – but, in the Anthropocene, of reflecting on the ways in which the ‘communicative systems’ (to which poetry itself contributes) through their ‘impact on human thought and behaviour, ultimately have an ecological function’ (15).

In the following chapter, ‘Evolving Systems of (Eco)poetry’ (19-64), Solnick traces the development of ecocriticism and ecopoetry from its early emphasis on place-based nature-writing (20-21) to its engagement with ‘trans-corporeal’ relationality and ‘the imbrication of the “mesh”’ (48). ‘Nature is not what is once was’ (24), and increasingly, ecopoetry has sought new ways to approach an interdependent world, not least because humankind’s relationship to that world is in some ways ‘technologically determined’ (37).  It may always have been (38-39), a point that Solnick links to his consideration of posthumanism (40-41).  But form is also integral to function; ‘form helps generate and organise a poem’s rendering of ecology’ (55), and in the final section of the chapter, Solnick takes up the challenge of defining what might be meant when ‘we talk about “poetry and the Anthropocene”’ (57).  To engage with the Anthropocene does not ‘simply consist of ornamenting an environmentalist message; it helps explore why and how communication about ecology, biology and technology might be affecting or (in)effective’ (57).

In Chapter Three, ‘”Life subdued to its instrument”’ (65-105), Solnick turns his attention to ‘Hughes, Mutation and Technology’ (65).  Taking as his starting point Hughes’s reinterpretation of the Promethean myth, Solnick considers ‘the co-development of humans and their environment through technology’ (66).  Given the concerns that Hughes outlined in ‘The Environmental Revolution’, it is no surprise that the Crow poems also respond to ‘the depredations of modern technology’ (79).  Importantly, they also embody a kind of radiative, ‘mutative power, the operation of the charged symbol on the reader’s psyche’ (92).  For Hughes, Solnick notes, art may play ‘a significant role in adapting humans to […] environmental crisis’ (97), a role that is perhaps most obviously evidenced in The Iron Man and The Iron Woman, where, ultimately, ‘technology engenders an engagement with otherness, thereby transforming behaviour’ (100).

If Hughes is widely acknowledged as a poet of particular interest to ecocritics, the connections between environmental concern and the poetry of Derek Mahon are often less obvious, even obscure. He is, as Solnick acknowledges, a ‘chronicler of the city’ (107). As he adds, however, Mahon’s ‘foundational concern with linking the economic and social alongside the spatial and ecological [...] makes Mahon the most interesting contemporary Irish poet for exploring the Anthropocene’ (106). As Solnick’s chapter title, ‘“Germinal ironies"' (106-147), suggests, Mahon’s sceptical self-awareness is itself a powerful tool in recognising both the destructive impact of contemporary late-modern ways of life, and ‘the thresholds of ecopoetic thinking and the limits of individual agency’ (108). Touching on Mahon’s earlier work, in which ‘overt environmental concerns remain oblique’ (109), Solnick moves on to discuss Mahon’s formative sense of ‘ecological and economic connectivity’ (117) and its emergence in collections such as Life on Earth (2008). As he notes, the collection’s ‘central sequence’ of verse – ‘a sequence about thinking futurity’ (139) – underlines Mahon’s indebtedness to James Lovelock’s controversial gaia theory (128). But as Solnick adds, in his discussion of Mahon’s later poetry, Mahon’s verse also negotiates (but does not finally escape) a sense of the Anthropocene as an apocalyptic end rather than a leap into a fresh future (139, 143-4).

‘Knowing one’s place becomes a fraught business indeed’ (143), remarks Solnick. It is no less fraught when a ‘post-modernist poetics’ emerges from a much more ‘expansive’ body of knowledge than we might take for the poet’s usual purview (148). As Solnick explains, in his chapter on ‘The Resistant Materials of Jeremy Prynne’ (148-196), Prynne actively engages with ‘technology, environment and biology’ (148), whether to delve into ‘the toxicity of agro-industrial practices’, in High Pink on Chrome (180), or to use the biochemical concept of ‘reverse transcription’ in genetics to question the Saussurean sense of language as arbitrary sign (149), in Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words (168-9). Prynne’s work is difficult, but its difficulty is, Solnick points out, ‘intimately linked to [Prynne’s] sense that many materials are, in significant ways, resistant to human ways of knowing and doing’ (150).

As ecocriticism itself expands and contracts, drawing on but sometimes recoiling from other bodies of knowledge, it is increasingly difficult to map its theoretical twists and turns, or to map any one of its positions onto an effective praxis. The strength of Solnick’s book lies in his ability to negotiate this sometimes self-contradictory field to offer careful and perceptive readings of the work of three important but very different writers. His wider point is apparent in his reading of Prynne’s Kazoo Dreamboats, ‘awash with dynamic objects where matter itself appears ridden with contradictions’ (189): ‘Mahon’s chaos of complex systems, Prynne’s viruses and vibrant materialities, Hughes’s mutative and mutating myths and species’ signal a more-than-human ‘regime of unpredictability and emergent properties across multiple scales’ (211). Our existing, and ‘over-humanised history’ (188) is an inadequate response to it; given our ‘emergent awareness of the limits of agency and predictability’ (211), so is a conventional understanding of what poetry is for. As Solnick notes in his concluding chapter (197-213), ‘for too long readers have looked to poetry primarily to understand how one might dwell in the world; the point, however, is to change (with) it’ (211).

Adrian Tait, Independent Scholar