Poetry and Geology: a Celebration (Geology Society, Piccadilly, 10.10.11)


Several Mondays ago I attended a conference at the Geological Society on Poetry and Geology: another example of the innovative cross-department work being done that bridges poetics and the earth/natural sciences. As someone with a pretty short attention span and a pathologically dilettantish interest in things I haven’t been remotely trained to do or write about, interdisciplinary study appeals.

Most emphasised was the importance of 19th Century contexts for thinking about the relationship between contemporary poetics and geology. From the middle of the century in England geology took off scientifically – Darwin, Lyell, Hutton – while also possessing great resonance as an idea that could be called in some sense ‘poetic’: the forceful rethinking deep, geological timescales impelled, especially though not exclusively in its obvious conflict with Biblical accounts of the earth’s age, appealed to writers due to its promise of an expansive relativism, a way of thinking not previously accessible.

In the 19th Century this insight may have been destabilising, but as the instrument of its revelation was scientific, and science controlled by man, it didn’t serve to fundamentally shift humanity’s perception of its own centrality: if anything the converse, confidence boosted by the perceived power of a new order of knowledge.

It is hard to detect the progenitors of modern planetary anxiety in such anthropocentricism, difficult to discern the radically displaced, unheimlich human subject as posited by J.H. Prynne (not discussed at this event). Prynne’s employment, in his early work, of the figure of ‘geological sublime’ seems to reach back further, to the Romantics, submerging their sense of nature’s hostile indifference within stratifications and bedrock, combining it with scientific discourses that are no longer a source of comfort. The seeming immovability and immutability of the mountain was for Wordsworth and Shelley the perfect metaphor for nature’s permanence and indifference to man; in Prynne the use of a geological time scale discomforts because it demonstrates even the mountain’s (relative) transience (see 1968’s The White Stones, and in particular ‘Concerning the Glacial Question, Reconsidered’).

There may have been a Victorian anticipation of such geomorphological fluidity in some lines from Tennyson’s In Memoriam, quoted by Bryan Lovell:

‘The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands;
They melt like mist, the solid lands,
Like clouds they shape themselves and go.’ (IM, CXXIII)

The effect is something like a time lapse film: the liquidity of these lines is itself something processual, unfinished, and far from human.

'oldest of the old'

Of course, ‘geo’ leads us beyond the realm of the strictly geological, as Gordon Peters’ talk on Scotland’s Geopoetics Centre suggested. Starting from the highlands in Scotland’s North West – the oldest rocks in the world, or ‘oldest of the old’, in the words of Kenneth White – Peters unfolded his ‘theory-practice’; basically that intellectual and sensory apprehensions of the world should be brought together around the subject of the earth, as their focus. Behind the lecture, and indeed partially the conference, is poet/geologist Kenneth White, whose quote might serve as the day’s tagline: ‘where geology and poetry meet is not a line of scholarship but an immersion.’

Bryan Lovell, President of the Geological Society, gave an impassioned speech, the thrust of which was that ‘the scientists have lost the public argument’: the implication being that poets are needed to try and bring home the facts of climate change to people empathetically, or through form, or affect.

Finally, the best (only?) geology joke I’ve heard (though hopefully not the last):

‘So I was at an outdoor geology lecture in the North West of Scotland, and I moved a little away from the group, and the lecturer asked me, “what are you doing?”
“I’m sitting on the basalt”, I said.
“That’s gneiss”, he said.

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