Songs For Earth
‘What can poetry say in a time of catastrophe?’ asks the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, referring to the catastrophe of Palestinian exile, the Nakba. When I quote this, I find people respond with Theodor Adorno’s assertion that it is “impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz”. Both inspire reflections on the place of all creative art at this time of ecological catastrophe: climate change, the destruction of ecosystems, the Sixth Extinction of living beings. I explored these questions with my artist niece Sarah Gillespie in two booklets, On Presence and On Sentience.
A little search on the internet suggested that Adorno did not say that it was impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz but that it was barbaric; and that later he withdrew his statement, saying “perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream.” Or, as Bertolt Brecht asked, 'In dark times will there also be singing?'
When I started to sing and play guitar again a few years ago, I was confronted with the question of what kind of songs to sing. So many songs are about human relationships of love and loss, which don’t seem quite appropriate for a nearly eighty-year-old with fifty-five years of marriage (although one can learn a lot about song writing from classic love songs like Berkeley Square). Remembering Rainer Maria Rilke's injunction that 'the more looked at world wants to be nourished by love'; and because so much of my attention is bound up with the plight of Earth and the unfolding ecological catastrophe, I realized that, with the poet Mary Oliver – and indeed Rilke – I can say ‘my work is loving the world’. Most of my songs are poems I like that speak of and to Earth that I set to my own tune and accompaniment; increasingly, I am writing my own lyrics.
These songs seem reach toward three themes: expressions of grief, rage, and despair; appreciations of beauty and wonder; acknowledgement of our deep participation in life on Earth.
The first theme, grief, rage, and despair, is maybe best explored through Brecht’s question, which lead me to write Will there be singing in the dark times? Responding to the late Polly Higgins and Eradicating Ecocide’s invitation to compose a letter to Earth in the face of the Sixth Extinction, all I could write was Dear Earth, I couldn’t live without you, which later evolved into a song lyric. Gods and Goddesses, a setting of a poem by my friend Ama Bolton, takes a look at our predicament from Olympian heights – it is driving the gods to drink; while Quiet Friend, The Unbroken and Lay Down the Path remind us of our human capacity to find our way through the darkest of times. Of course, this dark theme is is well expressed by Leonard Cohen in The Future, especially the lines ‘The blizzard, the blizzard of the world | Has crossed the threshold | And it has overturned | The order of the soul’. There are one or two Cohen songs I attempt (singing Anthem can leave me in tears), but The Future is not one of them.
However, many more songs are ones of praise and appreciation of the beauty of the wild world. One of my earliest is a setting of Wendell Berry’s much loved The Peace of the Wild Things, which I later arranged in four parts for Sasspafellas, the men’s choir I am part of (with much help from my teacher Marius Frank). Rocks drew on my experience of encountering ancient geology sailing north on the west coast of Scotland. More recently, with some trepidation, I found a way to sing the beautiful Lost Words Blessing by Lost Words. Robert Bly’s translation of Goethe's poem Wanderer's Nachtlied II drew me to write Wanderer’s Nightsong; Mary Oliver shows the wonder of Sleeping in the Forest; and so on.
Over the past four years I have been taking seriously the panpsychic and animist perspective that the world is alive; not just alive, the world is sentient and speaks to us, if only we will attend and listen. I have been involved in a series of co-operative inquiries with Human and River persons and am giving an account of this in Learning How Land Speaks. Suzanne/River Song adapts Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne to express my personal experience of how River speaks.
This leads on to the third theme: we are part of this world, not apart from it, as the dualism and anthropocentric assumptions of capitalist growth society teach us. I have written academically about participatory worldview, but it is maybe better expressed poetically. When I Was The Forest is based on words by Meister Eckhart in Daniel Ladinsky's rendering. The second verse is my own words, which I hope remains in the spirit of the original mystic vision of returning to full participation in the Earth and her creatures. State of Grace was written by Elizabeth Krasknoff as coursework at California Institute for Integral Studies. Other songs are inspired by Taoist philosophy: The Way was inspired by a poem by Wang Wei that features in Richard Powers' ecological novel The Overstory; The Uses of Not is adapted from Ursula LeGuin's rendering of the Tao te Ching.