poetry prompt about climate crisis

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For this poetry prompt about climate crisis (or more accurately, our response to the climate crisis), start by reading “Inside the Compulsion to Wonder Lurks the Will to Survive” by Dobby Gibson and give some thought to what you like/admire.

As noted by Poetry Daily, “Inside the Compulsion…” is from Gibson’s collection Little Glass Planet, published by Graywolf Press in 2019. Graywolf’s web page for the book includes this description: “a kind of manual for paying attention to a world that is increasingly engineered to distract us from our own humanity.” This poem is a great example. It calls us to pay attention to the way we shrug off knowledge of the climate crisis despite clear warnings:

ships … can now sail
straight through the Arctic, filthy bears
clinging to shriveling rafts of ice.

Tell me the truth, what does anyone care
inside the barber shop this morning
where everyone wants the regular again

Dobby Gibson’s “Inside the Compulsion to Wonder Lurks the Will to Survive”

Gibson shows how our routines distract us from pending disaster, how — instead of compelling us toward action — our daily routines compel us to repeat our daily routines. The poem even mimics this uninterrupted cycle: We’re with the speaker as he consumes reminders of the crisis then goes about his day as planned. We claim to be awake to the danger (the poem opens, “Once awake”), but then we go about our business. We get on with the sameness. Its repetition is a sedative: “When I asked you what day it was, / you said the day after yesterday.” Our inability to stop mutes our response to climate crisis. Awareness is a dull weapon. Our habits are stronger than our fears, more reliable than our desire.

I think immediately of Rachel Zucker’s book the pedestrians and jump up to grab it off the shelf. I’ve written before about the power of that book, which evokes the experience of how painful it can be when things (relationships, life, etc.) become humdrum, how lack of feeling, or maybe appropriate feeling, can be extremely painful. Inattention is gut-wrenching. Indifference is unendurable. For example, Zucker writes, “Many days passed. Many nights. The same number of days and nights. They slept in the smoke-drenched bed or rather the husband snored and sputtered and she lay awake and unseeing under her chilled eye mask.” In its willfulness, the word unseeing gets me every time. And this, as well: “They were sitting on the deck having that same difficult conversation they had every few months no matter where they were or what else was happening.” Zucker captures the harm in doing what we’ve always done just because it’s what we’ve always done. Do we know how to make space for change?

Gibson’s poem evokes in me that same question, along with some others: Do we deserve to hope? Do we care, really? What does it say that we see what comes next and then let it happen anyway? The poem strongly implicates all of us. Take a look at the vase near the end of the poem: “No matter where we move the glass vase, / it leaves a ring.” We’re marked by evidence of our coveting, but instead of interrogating it, we’re distracted by what’s inconsequential: the ring vs. the container or what the container holds. The language Gibson uses throughout the poem builds up to this moment of profound distraction. He makes the objects in the poem far sexier than “survival.” He describes his smartphone as a “terrible orb” and animates the barbershop’s combs, which are “swimming in little blue aquariums.”

Can we also talk about the title? Compulsion. Wonder. Lurks. Survival. It’s loaded. Those words have heft. They’re remarkable, especially in comparison with the mundane scenes that follow in the poem. In addition, I believe the title carries almost all of the emotion in the poem. My early notes to myself called the title “the most hopeful part of the poem.” I wrote that it contained “the information and context we need in order to not despair fully.” What I focused on initially was the will to survive. It’s good news, I told myself. We’re motivated to find our way out of the climate crisis. After several readings, I’ve changed my mind. I land now on the word lurks. I see in the poem how the will to survive doesn’t actually seem to matter one bit. Now I say the title makes the poem more dire. What do you think?

It’s big, right? Let’s not push that gravity away. Let’s dig into it. LET’S WRITE –>

  1. Brainstorm about what concerns you about the climate crisis: What’s at stake for you? What’s most hurtful to imagine? What scares you?
  2. Brainstorm, as well, about your actions? Follow Gibson’s lead and be hard on yourself: If you’re doing nothing, say so. If you’re doing something, is it enough? Gibson writes that despite being awake to the danger, he’s “as anonymous as the sky.” Do you feel like you have agency in regard to climate change?
  3. Create a narrative into which you can weave these details. Take us on a walk through your city or a trip to the grocery store. Let us sit with you while you do some online shopping (a la “retail therapy”). Go for a drive. Sit by the water. Watch the kids play soccer. Make dinner for your partner.

For an extra challenge, include a profound “what if” question, like this stunner in Gibson’s poem: “What if this isn’t late capitalism, but early?” (And by the way, I don’t know if I can recover fully from that question. Of course, you’d never know it by the way, after stating that, I get up from the desk for a final cup of coffee and log in for another day of work.)


Do not copy the poem that inspired this writing prompt. It’s a good idea when you harvest material from these exercises to either credit their inspiration (i.e. make a note at the top of your poem, like after Dobby Gibson’s “Inside the Compulsion to Wonder Lurks the Will to Survive”) or remove the scaffolding provided by the example and keep only the material you crafted. In other words: make it your own.

Be sure to let me know if you write a poem or other piece in response to this poetry prompt about climate change. I’d love to read it! You can find past poetry prompts here, including writing prompts from prior years.

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