The coalfield and the apocalypse: poetry and the politics of time

2017-02-26T22:35:52Z (GMT) by Williamson, Caroline Mary Wintringham
What forms can the future take in our minds, in relation to the threat of climate change? Public responses to the bleak scenarios outlined by scientists have too often taken the form either of denial or despair. This creative writing thesis uses the work of Walter Benjamin and an examination of the work of some contemporary poets to open up ways of thinking through the politics of time in relation to the possibility of catastrophic climate change. My long poem ‘Cap Coch’ explores the coalfield of South Wales in the 1870s, a time of rapid expansion of mining and of dramatic social change. It establishes a distant time and place as being as conflicted and contradictory as our own, and even less aware of long-term environmental damage. It works towards a template for a way of thinking not just about the past but about the future: not as a single catastrophe but, as Walter Benjamin would have it, a chain of distinct events, equal in complexity to our own times. In the first chapter of the critical section of the thesis, I examine the life and writing of Walter Benjamin, in particular his final work ‘On the Concept of History’. I argue that his thinking exists in dialogue and mobility: multilayered, imagistic, deliberately incapable of being pinned down to a single interpretation. In his thinking about time and change he holds to a hard-won optimism, even in the face of immediate and overwhelming danger. The second and third chapters of the thesis explore these themes in the work of two very different poets. In her book Sea Change, the American poet Jorie Graham draws on the work of climate scientists to construct a catastrophic end for the human race. I offer a reading of the text – in opposition to her own accounts of it, and those of many of her critics – as an exploration of ways of relating to time in terms of the stages of a human life, and draw an analogy between the narrow dystopian vision in the first part of the book and my reading of Benjamin’s grieving angel of history: a position to be critiqued. Much of the work of Australian poet Jill Jones inhabits a complex present moment, urban, self-questioning and anti-rhetorical, that refuses to be mobilised into the conventions of environmental politics. She enacts a form of time comparable to that in which Benjamin sees the seeds of the future concealed within the present, ready at any moment to crack open, revealing the possibility of things being otherwise. The thesis concludes that poetry offers an open field in which both the form of a poem and its content may offer a range of other ways of being in the world, which are not necessarily openly political but which sidestep the conventional polarisation between denial and despair. With Benjamin, it asserts that even in the face of overwhelming odds the possibility of unimaginable change is always with us.