Art and Activism: The Environmental Poetry of Kathleen Jamie and Valerie Gillies

Dr. Laura Severin
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In her recent work Reinventing Eden (2004), Carolyn Merchant points out the limitations of Western environmental narratives, which she labels as “progressive” and “declensionist.” While one promises hope and the other doom, they are similar in that they consider human beings as dominant over nature, with the power to either cure or destroy the planet. Merchant suggests a different approach, a new environmental ethic, based on partnership with nature. Though not influenced by Merchant, Scottish poets Kathleen Jamie and Valerie Gillies have come to a similar conclusion in their recent environmentalist works, which enact this partnership ethic with nature. Theirs is an activist poetic, both environmentalist and feminist in nature, which is intended to alter, and better, their communities, whether that be northern Scotland, as in the case of Jamie, or the Tweed River Valley, in the case of Gillies.

Kathleen Jamie’s approach to environmentalism is perhaps the most traditional of the two poets in that she relies solely on her writing to promote change. In her recent work of poetry, The Tree House (2004) and her non-fiction essays, Findings (2005), Jamie uses the traditional strengths of poetry, its powers of observation, to teach others to be aware of the intimate connections between human beings and nature. While she does not argue for any particular activist approach, her works document the importance of nature, point out areas of environmental degradation, and most importantly, call for the importance of human care for nature. This latter responsibility she sees as one that women have traditionally shouldered, since in “The Creel,” the elderly woman of the poem fears that if she puts her burden down “the world would go out like a light.”

Valerie Gillies’s approach is the more innovative in that she actually uses poetry to reclaim degraded landscapes and, in the process, preserves her beloved Tweed River, which runs the lower border of Scotland. Her first attempt at preserving the Tweed River was a more traditional literary approach in that she banded together with a group of women to produce Tweed Journey, a book of poetry, photographs, and history, intended to raise public awareness of the river. However, she has not been satisfied with this approach alone, and has recently begun to reclaim sites along the river through the establishment of parks and public art installations, which combine her poetry and the sculpture of others. These art installations are feminist works in that they are unsigned and not intended to be monuments to their creators’ collective genius. Instead, they are intended to immerse the viewer in nature and teach them the history of the landscape that surrounds them. In this way, Gillies hopes to preserve the land surrounding the Tweed River, and thereby protect the Tweed itself.

Together, these two women can be seen as environmental activists who use their talents, in this case poetry, to protect their immediate environments. As feminist theorist Val Plumwood has argued, the “wild” is present everywhere and we must act to preserve whatever nature is still free and unmanaged. Kathleen Jamie and Valerie Gillies have recognized this necessity and have shaped their poetry into a powerful means of preservation.

Keywords: Contemporary Scottish Poetry, Environmental Activism
Stream: Analysing Artforms
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.

Dr. Laura Severin

Professor of English and Associate Dean, Department of English
College of Humanities and Social Sciences, North Carolina State University


Laura Severin is a Professor of English and an Associate Dean at North Carolina State University, where she teaches twentieth-century British literature, modern and contemporary poetry, and women's literature. She is the author of Stevie Smith's Resistant Antics (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997) and Poetry off the Page: Twentieth-Century British Women Poets in Performance (Ashgate, 2004), as well as a number of articles on twentieth-century poetry. She is currently at work on a book tentatively titled Poetry Astray: Contemporary Scottish Women Poets and Multimedia Art, which focuses on the work of Jackie Kay, Liz Lochhead, Valerie Gillies, and Kathleen Jamie.

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