|The idea of writing an epic about
our beleaguered planet began in 1982, when I first read Jonathan Schell’s
The Fate of the Earth, a passionate and literate response to the
threat of nuclear destruction. The second part of this book begins to
delve into the question: what sort of spiritual transformation would have
to come over humankind to enable us to refrain from destroying ourselves
and our surroundings, whether through nuclear warfare or some other form
of technologically-enabled folly? The third part of the book returned to a
more immediately pragmatic level, offering recommendations for political
action which I found less persuasive.
The Fate of the Earth left me with a desire to pursue what seemed to me its most important question. For it is only on the religious level – in the broadest sense of that term – that we might form a vision of ourselves that might enable us adequately to confront the planetary crisis. Probably all of our religions originated in different communities’ efforts to mold themselves to the necessities of their environment, the conditions of their survival. Surely the ecological crisis is a signal to take up that task again. Indeed, during the first wave of concern about "the ecology," attempts were made to develop a religious view more in harmony with the earth than the religions and irreligiosities then available. Unfortunately, these attempts often reverted uncritically to the forms of earlier times, when our ancestors were apparently more in equilibrium with the environment. But even in the earliest state of human organization, the trends were present that have gotten us to where we are – confronted with an unprecedented reality to which we must frame an unprecedented response. It may well be that in certain areas we need to take a step or two backward in time; the form of this poem is one example; but every such step would surely need to be considered on its own merits, in the light of our current confrontation with the Universe.
Soon after I had read Schell’s book, the title The Consciousness of Earth suggested itself to me, together with the unfocused concept of a book that would try to prolong the above-indicated line of thought. I tried writing it in prose. It did not "jell." The ideas as I wrote them down seemed at the same time wholly logical and wholly implausible. In physics they are used to this kind of thing; Niels Bohr once dismissed a theory with the comment, "Not crazy enough." In humanistic culture, of course, the traditional home of what is "crazy" enough to be true is poetry.
A few months later, I found myself writing an essay on the image of the earth in the poetry of Paul Celan ("The Distant Earth: Celan’s Planetary Vision," Sulphur 11, fall 1984). One day, not long after I had finished this essay, I found myself writing down the lines which form the prologue to the present poem. These lines committed me to writing an epic in blank verse on the ecological crisis. From then on a sense of having been "dared" held me to the task, until the first version of the poem was completed in 1989.
With the form and style of The Consciousness of Earth, I was taking a double risk: the risk of writing in poetry (when many people who think about the environment have gotten out of the habit of reading poetry) and the risk of writing in a conventional and somewhat archaic style (when even those who still practice poetry have abandoned this style). So I can’t resist making a brief plea in prose here, first of all for poetry as a vehicle of thinking, and second for this particular style. The long-standing philosophic prejudice against poetry (and the corresponding poetic preference against philosophy) conceal the fact that it is actually easier to think coherently in verse than in prose! As I put it in a recent blank verse letter, I write in verse because "it helps me see the contour of my thought/ and gives me hope others will see it too." Gregory Bateson, in Toward an Ecology of Mind, acknowledges poetry as an ideal vehicle of "holistic" thinking; so it is more than ominous that in an age when the need for such thought has been recognized, poetry should have been shunted off onto an aesthetic sidetrack. As to the style: In Human Nature Edward O. Wilson, grappling with the question of whether our sociobiological heritage will allow us to come to grips with our self-created dilemmas, rather abruptly suggests "nobility" as a quality we need to cultivate. And the linguistic vehicle of "nobility" in English is precisely the slightly elevated, slightly archaic poetic style which has taken many different inflections, yet somehow remained itself until its recent abandonment. Its quality of "nobility" must have to do with the fact that it is of no particular generation, but belongs to the chain of generations. On the other hand, the modern insistence on contemporaneity and novelty at every minute has perhaps a subterranean connection with the throwaway culture, and certainly implies – Schell makes this point, I think – an awareness of futurelessness.
One of the problems I’ve had to cope with in this work is the gap between poetic and scientific language. Scientific language can be exploited for poetic ends up to a certain point, but the point is soon reached; you cannot get "deoxyribonucleic acid" into a poem. This linguistic hiatus mirrors the hiatus between scientific and humanistic knowledge; even if I could pretend to expertise in one of the sciences – which I cannot – when I write about science poetically I am writing not as a scientist but as a member of the human community living in a world which science has shaped. What cannot be translated into the aforesaid standard poetic idiom, I have had to leave as an blurred outline on the periphery. But this is no bar to the task of finding a humanistic orientation to the universe against a background of scientific fact and theory which has shifted many times in the last century and is bound to shift again.
Indeed, some of that shifting has taken place since the first private publication of this poem in 1989. There is more scientific certainty about the genesis of the universe and its eventual fate; more is known about the gene; artificial intelligence has developed further, and the computer has remodeled the social panorama. I have made some changes to "update" the poem, though its basic argument remains unchanged.
But though the basic argument remains unchanged, the situation of this poem is not that of Lucretius’ De rerum natura or Dante’s Commedia. Lucretius’ and Dante described a cosmos that stayed put for a while, so that the terms in which they described it seemed plausible for some generations afterward and their poems, in the eye of the literary tradition, came to stand as permanent monoliths. In our time, certainly, no one can aspire to describe the universe "once for all." But this doesn’t mean that the Lucretian/Dantean enterprise of describing the world in poetic terms, should be abandoned. Rather, the new developments point up the truth that literature does not consist only in the production of isolated masterpieces; it is, ideally, an ongoing collective appraisal and reappraisal. And so, the hope of The Consciousness of Earth is not to say the last word on the ecological situation but, on the contrary, to model and catalyze an ongoing process of poetical reflection, a discussion of the environment deepened by the concentration and coherency that are the age-old inheritance of poetry, needed more than ever if we are to assume our responsibility for the earth.