‘The Climate’ was published in The New Yorker in September 2019. It is one of several poems that the poet has had published in this publication. ‘The Climate’ takes a figurative approach to defining the climate crisis while also using easy to understand language. Gelman clearly depicts the foreboding nature of humanity’s future in the form of a wave.
Explore The Climate
‘The Climate’ by Annelyse Gelman is a thought-provoking poem that uses a simile to define the climate crisis.
The poet spends the first lines comparing an approaching wave to something. That “something” has to be interpreted. With the title, readers can assume that she’s thinking about the climate crisis and the changes that human-made climate change is going to bring to the Earth. By embodying that change as a wave on the horizon, she alludes to one of the primary features of climate change (changing ocean levels) while also defining climate change in an appropriately foreboding way.
The people on the beach who are in the most danger are unwilling to understand what they see on the horizon. Instead, they turn back to the sand and their decadent lives. These same people express concern over a child who is caught up in the undertow but are still incapable of seeing the larger picture. When the poem concludes, the wave has arrived, creating a new “sky” over their heads and casting a long shadow.
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout this piece, Gelman engages with themes of change and negligence. The poet defines the climate crisis through an interesting simile featuring an approaching wave that’s so massive it’s hard to comprehend. Rather than try to address the wave, the people on the beach turn away from the water and focus on the sand. They continue to live the same way they always have, ignoring and neglecting the problem at hand. This is emphasized when a child is taken by the undertow and given CPR. This is just a taste of what’s to come, but still, “one” doesn’t notice the shadow the wave is casting over everything.
When the wave does come, the changes it’s going to bring are monumental. Nothing is going to be the same.
Structure and Form
‘The Climate’ by Annelyse Gelman is a thirty-line poem that is arranged in couplets or sets of two lines. There are fifteen couplets in this piece. Gelman chose to write this poem in free verse. This means that the lines do not conform to a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. There are a few scattered end rhymes throughout this poem, though. For example, “be” and “see” at the ends of lines twenty and twenty-six. Plus, readers might notice examples of exact rhymes, like “shadow,” which ends lines twenty-five and twenty-eight.
- Caesura: seen when the poet inserts a pause in the middle of lines. This technique is used numerous times throughout this poem. For example, “in the undertow, say, who must be” and “it would come, and soon, the shadow.” These pauses help create a specific rhythm to the text. They are not grammatically necessary.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines one and two as well as even and eight. The majority of the lines in this poem are enjambed.
- Simile: occurs when the speaker compares two unlike things using “like” or “as.” There are several examples in this poem. The first appears in the first line when the poet compares the climate crisis to an approaching wave.
- Allusion: throughout this poem, the poet alludes to the climate crisis without ever mentioning it. She also alludes to those who would rather maintain their decadent, useless lifestyles rather than acknowledge what’s happening.
It was like watching a wave approach
From a great distance, so great
To avail oneself of the diversions
In the first lines of ‘The Climate,’ the speaker begins by using a simile. It’s unclear at first exactly what she’s thinking about, but she compares it to watching a “wave approach.” It’s slow at first and quite distant. The wave is “so great” that it appears s an extension of the horizon. This interesting simile is defining something that’s so massive that it’s hard to comprehend for most people. Because of how massive the approaching wave is, it might be possible for someone to turn their back to the horizon and “avail oneself of the diversions.” This is one of many examples of enjambment in this poem. The poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. This means the reader has to move down to the next line in order to finish the phrase.
Gelman uses a relaxed and conversational tone throughout this poem and, through the use of end-punctuation and enjambment, emphasizes this.
of the beach, might turn one’s back
on the ocean altogether, might turn instead
blanching the page, stained, perhaps,
with sweat, the creamy pleasure
In the next few lines, it starts to become clear, through this extremely extended simile, what it is that Gelman is talking about. By taking the title into consideration, it seems likely that the poet is thinking about the climate and how massive and impossible to comprehend the climate crisis is for most people.
By describing how one might turn their back to the horizon and distract themselves with the sand, she’s defining the common response to climate change. It’s so far in the distance that it’s easy to ignore it for one more day. For most people, distractions like the sand and a book are easy ways to take them away from the truth of the world—things are about to change dramatically. When the metaphorical wave reaches the shore, nothing is going to be the same.
of not-laboring, when one would otherwise
labor, the pleasure of wasting
dragged to shore and breathed into
like an empty balloon, an empty balloon
The next lines emphasize “not-laboring” and wasting time. This is something that’s a crucial part of why “one” ends up on this metaphorical beach in this situation in the first place. Decades of “decadent uselessness” that’s prolonged, even when the wave is in sight, is only making things worse.
There might be some alarm, the speaker adds. For example, a “child caught / in the under tow.” This alludes to the tragedy that’s on the horizon when the wave gets to shore. The child is described using another simile. They are compared to an “empty balloon” that’s blown back up.
on which everything depends, might,
bent over the small body, waiting for it
of that wave, like a new sky, already
overhead and even now descending.
The poet concludes by saying that everything depends on this child or what the child represents. They are the future, and when one is bent over the child’s body, they might not see the “shadow / of that wave” that’s “even now descending.” It’s like a “new sky,” one that’s going to change the nature of the world forever.
Throughout this piece, Gelman uses a serious tone. She addresses the subject with the seriousness it deserves but still uses colloquial words and phrases. This allows her message to come through clearly.
She uses several symbols, such as comparing the drowned child to a balloon and suggesting that they are a symbol of the future. The beach is a symbol of one’s decadent, wasteful life while the people on the beach are also part of the extended simile and are there to symbolize all those who could do something about climate change but don’t.
The poet wrote this piece in order to draw attention to climate change and the approaching, irreparable effects. Before long, the wave is going to crash down onto the metaphorical beach and everyone’s life is going to change.
The poem is meant to remind readers of the effects of climate change and how important it is to pay attention to the climate crisis before it’s too late. It also emphasizes how easy it is to ignore the crisis and stay focused on one’s normal life.
The wave symbolizes the approaching effects of climate change and the beach symbolizes everyday life. The people on the beach turn away from the water and distract themselves with sand, books, and sunscreen. They’re unwilling to address what’s approaching the shore.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Climate’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘Halloween in the Anthropocene, 2015’ by Craig Santos Perez – uses Halloween to speak on privileged, cultural appropriation, and the climate crisis.
- ‘Letter to My Great, Great, Grandchild’ by J.P. Grasser – a powerful poem about the climate crisis. Throughout, the poet alludes to terrible planetary changes that occur in only a few generations.
- ‘Ice and Fire’ by Robert Frost – explores a universal interest in the apocalypse. It has always been a phenomenon capable of capturing people’s minds. Read more of Robert Frost’s poems.