Rhymes on Clime

Poets can use language to touch our very souls. For National Poetry Day, we look at some of the most compelling poems ever written on climate change.

October 4, 2019

12:24 pm

in the beginning

was water

So begins a new legend in the 2016 climate-change poem “Utilomar” by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a poet from the Marshall Islands, a nation that is on the front lines of the climate emergency. 

water from the sea that flooded our homes our land and now

our only underground reservoir

what we call a fresh water lens

shaped like the front of an eyeball, nestled deep in our coral

feeding on rainwater it watches us, burning and angry it is

vindictive

it poisons us

with salt

leaving us dry

and thirsty

Jetnil-Kijiner’s poem was selected by Newsweek magazine in a roundup of great poetry on climate-change, to celebrate yesterday’s (October 3) National Poetry Day. The other works included “A Climate of Change” by George the Poet, “Ovid on Climate Change” by Eliza Griswold, “Polar Heart” by Simon Barraclough, and “A Language of Change” by David Sergeant. Sergeant’s poem was one of 20 original climate-change poems commissioned by the Guardian in 2015, under the curation of UK poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. And Barraclough’s piece was part of another project of nine original climate-change poems commissioned by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).

After noting in “Utilomar” (and you can watch the author recite the poem in a video here) that rising sea levels threaten her native islands’s only source of fresh water with salt “poison,” she juxtaposes that threat with one facing Minnesotans — 6,000 miles away. After noting that “intensified heat” will threaten the state’s 12,000-year old North Woods forest, she writes:

I imagine a hardwood tree ancient

and weary, dry

untangling its roots from the soil

before heaving its tree trunk body

to a new home where it will forever mourn

its roots"

A tree forever mourning its roots. Salt as poison. These are the poetic images that might be able to create more impact and drive deeper into the hearts with leaders who have turned a cold shoulder to international protests.

George the Poet is a London-born spoken-word performer of Ugandan heritage. In his “A Climate of Change,” which you can listen to him perform here, he challenges us all — including himself — to be more responsible for our own contributions to the problem:

...be the vision

through your lifestyle choices you can lead the mission

bring the future to your present when it seems a bit distant.

The cleanest existence is green and efficient.

And you haven’t really played your part

until your lifestyle reflects a change of heart.

It’s a continuous process:

I’m still working on it myself.

In closing — inspired by the works of these artists, we humbly offer our own climate poem:

Violets are blue

Roses are red

If we don’t heed the climate emergency

Both will be dead.

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