Welcome to the Poetry Apocalypse!
I first ran this course some time ago, in 2015, and as a starting point to re-working this course for 2021, I revisited the blog piece I wrote then. It started with the question ‘can you remember your first apocalypse?’, and talked about the Millennium Bug – how the fear of it had shaped me and my writing and thinking ever since. And now here we are, undoubtedly still living through apocalyptic times – I write this days before a Christmas where it’s only safe to see my family outdoors, where a killer virus is sweeping the country in various mutations, and after a year of social distancing and isolation that I couldn’t have imagined twelve months ago.
The human brain is an excellent future simulator – our ability to anticipate has certainly been a major evolutionary advantage. We can foresee a cold hungry winter so we grow more food than we need and store it. But these preparations have gone to extremes in some cases – as anyone who has watched the Netflix show ‘Doomsday Preppers’ can attest – there are people out there filling their bunkers with canned and dried goods, fresh water, and (in some terrifying cases) weapons, against the future collapse of society. There are people with their go-bag prepped and their escape route planned. Will any of this make the apocalypse easier to endure if and when it comes?
The downside of this anticipation is a tendency towards anxieties, which are less useful. We might start anticipating things needlessly and make them an unnecessary cause of concern. The brain of a poet who writes poems about the apocalypse is particularly good at this.
I don’t know when it started, but our various news broadcasts are full of things that may or may not happen these days. I noticed it first in 2014 – with the coverage of the upcoming Scottish Independence referendum – but now it is something observed regularly. The entire Channel 4 News Report on Brexit negotiations last night went along the lines of: talks are happening, there may be a deal, but it’s not definite. If it does happen, it’ll be good, but also maybe not so good, if it doesn’t happen, it’ll be bad, but maybe not so bad. We dedicate more and more of our time to speculating on uncertainties, which contributes to our collective constant anxiety.
Mark O’Connell’s fantastic 2020 book Notes from an Apocalypse takes this anxiety as a cornerstone: ‘If I could be said to have had a faith in those days, it was anxiety – the faith in the uncertainty and darkness of the future’. O’Connell describes watching videos of emaciated polar bears in the Arctic on YouTube as his son watches a cartoon bear having fun adventures alongside human children. Suspended between these two extremes, O’Connell wonders when his son will graduate from a world of happy cartoon bears to a world of endangered or extinct ones, and what the future holds for someone whose lifespan will continue beyond the limits of his own.
Humans struggle to understand long timescales; we could probably manage our own lifespan plus two in either direction, which is still less than five hundred years. Our universe is 13.8 billion years old. If I imagine someone reading a poem by me in five hundred years’ time, I get a gratifying feeling of legacy, but my own body and consciousness are unlikely to be anywhere in the picture. Maybe there will be an atom of my carbon in the paper it’s printed on, if paper isn’t illegal by then. An organisation called the Long Now Foundation (longnow.org) attempts to foster longer-term future thinking among humans; it is building an underground clock that will chime once every millennium, and encourages the making of Long Bets, which range from immortal mice to sentient AI. It’s a playful, though slightly detached, way of exerting our control over the unpredictable future we face.
As artists, we can try and channel this anxiety of the unknown into our work. We have the important job of helping the future to be felt; to dip our readers’ toes into the rising water before it comes over the doorstep; to help them sense feelings amidst a paralysing bombardment of facts. In this short course, we will explore many futures: the rise of superintelligence, the changing climate, the erosion of language, and the things we leave behind us. We will make survival plans for a distant way of life that we cannot predict.
Surviving the Future: Poetry for Pre-Apocalyptic Times with Suzannah Evans will run fortnightly from 13 January to 24 March. Join the waiting list by e-mailing [email protected]