While putting together the programme for Poetry and Geology: A Celebration, a one-day event held at the Geological Society in October 2011, the question of what exactly we were celebrating was the most frequent aesthetic (as well as practical) concern for myself and my co-convenors. Was the day just about those poets who had an interest in geology? Was it about famous geological poems? Were we looking for geologists who wrote poetry or poets who wrote about geology (or both)? What links where to be made between the act of writing poetry and the act of geological research (and vice versa?). Was the day limited to the study of ‘rock poetry’ or could broader avenues be explored such as our relationship with space and the aesthetics of place? In the end, as I hope the online resources reveal, the day was able to encompass all of these areas and more.
Something that caused most concern, however, was the use of the word ‘geopoetry’. At first I shied away from it. I knew that the most well-known use of the phrase was originated by the Scottish poet Kenneth White and the International Institute of Geopoetics which he founded in 1989. Geopoetics, White writes, ‘is concerned, fundamentally, with a relationship to the earth and with the opening of a world’. This would indeed make a fitting banner for our day, but I felt that overuse of the word may narrow rather than widen our field, that we would be mis-using it, and also that the slightly more shamanistic elements of the geopoetics movement were perhaps not appropriate for an event at the Geological Society.
But I had seen Kenneth White in an incredible Q&A with Drew Clegg at St. Andrews in 2008 and deep down I knew that geopoetics had to be an element of the day (one simple sentence of White’s has since been firmly in my mind: that when writing poetry, you should ‘start with the local knowledge, with whatever is under your feet’). So I was thrilled to have Gordon Peters from the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics attend to provide an enlightening keynote lecture on geopoetics and the work of the centre.
It was only after the event, however, that I was informed that the term has at least one earlier origin, and it was in fact a geologist who coined it. Harry Hess (May 24, 1906 – August 25, 1969) is considered a revolutionary figure in earth sciences and a ‘founding father’ of the unifying theory of plate tectonics. When he first published his theories and findings in the article ‘History of Ocean Basins’ (1962), he called it ‘an essay in geopoetry’. As the Canadian poet Don McKay explains:[Hess] described his speculations as geopoetry in order to induce his readers (mostly other geologists) to suspend their disbelief long enough for his observations about seafloor spreading, driven by magma rising continuously from the mantle, to catch on. He needed his audience, in the absence of much hard data, to speculate imaginatively, as if reading poetry.
McKay goes on to explain, in his important and eloquent lecture ‘Ediacaran and the Anthropocene: poetry as a read of deep time’, how Hess’s reasons for using the word geopoetry are as important today as they were back in 1962:Now that so much evidence is in, and no one disbelieves in plate tectonics any more (at least no one who does not also disbelieve in evolution), the term might be allowed to lapse, a marriage of convenience whose raison d’être has evaporated. But, as you can see, I don’t think it ought to be. I think that Harry Hess, like Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, or any other creative scientist, enters a mental space beyond ordinary analysis, where conjecture and imaginative play are needed and legitimate, and that this is a mental space shared with poets. But even more than this poetic license, I would say, the practice of geopoetry promotes astonishment as part of the acceptable perceptual frame. Geopoetry makes it legitimate for the natural historian or scientist to speculate and gawk, and equally legitimate for the poet to benefit from close observation, and from some of the amazing facts that science turns up. It provides a crossing point, a bridge over the infamous gulf separating scientific from poetic frames of mind, a gulf which has not served us well, nor the planet we inhabit with so little reverence or grace. Geopoetry, I am tempted to say, is the place where materialism and mysticism, those ancient enemies, finally come together, have a conversation in which each hearkens to the other, then go out for a drink.
Both Kenneth White and Harry Hess – men working in different fields, with different practical and aesthetic concerns – used the word in different contexts. But their intentions were the same – to create that crossing point, to open up the world; to improve as well as challenge, through imagination and astonishment, our relationship with the earth.