Seamus Heaney thinks that poetry has a special ability to redress spiritual balance and to function as a counterweight to hostile and oppressive forces in the world. He calls this “the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality”. Heaney’s personal mantra is a phrase by an earlier Nobel prizewinner, the Greek poet George Seferis, who felt that poetry should be “strong enough to help”. He wasn’t calling for straightforwardly uplifting verse, but saying that he valued poetry’s “response to conditions in the world at a moment when the world was in crisis”. This is what Heaney means by redress, whereby “the poetic imagination seems to redress whatever is wrong or exacerbating in the prevailing conditions”, offering “a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances.”

David Constantine developed this theme in his essay The Usefulness of Poetry, showing how Bertolt Brecht’s dogmatic requirement that lyric poetry should be “useful” was subverted in his own work. The effect of Brecht’s poems on the reader is not an engagement with his political ideas, says Constantine, but rather “a shock, a quickening of consciousness, a becoming alert to better possibilities, an extension, a liberation”, for such poetry is, “to put it mildly, a useful thing if, when reading it, we sense a better way of being in the world”.

This is the perspective we need in considering the so-called “role” of poetry in the ecological debate: a “way of being in the world” or what Auden himself called “a way of happening”…As the world’s politicians and corporations orchestrate our headlong rush towards eco-Armageddon, poetry may seem like a hopeless gesture. But if Seferis and Heaney are right, poetry can at the very least be “strong enough to help”…poetry’s power is in the detail, in the force of each individual poem, in every poem’s effect on every listener or reader…

In Ireland people still think poetry is important. If our own politicians spent just a couple of minutes each day reading these kinds of poems, they might be better fitted to carry out their duties more responsibly. We might even be able to trust some of them then to act in our interest in what they do to tackle the problems of environmental destruction and global warming.

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