Verse allows us to see the detail of our own lives refracted

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WHAT role can poetry play in the struggle to save the planet? Jonathan Bate's influential book Song of the Earth argues that its role is central. But how do poets feel? The theme of ecology ran through the St Andrews Poetry Festival, StAnza 2006, like a quiet undercurrent, at times surfacing for heated debate.

Nature writer Richard Mabey, who had to cancel his visit to the festival at the last minute due to illness, argues that language and imagination are the most powerful tools we have for re-engaging with nature. But what is the best way to do this? In a digital age, when David Attenborough can take us hunting with snow leopards via our television screens, is there a danger that virtual reality can replace the need for words and imagination?

One of the powerful roles of poetry has long been in illuminating the minutiae of life we take for granted. Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote that "to know fully even one field... is a lifetime's experience", and there were plenty of examples here of poetry as a vivid close-up that makes things new: Michael Longley on badgers and otters; Valerie Gillies on butterflies and basking adders; Linda France on wild flowers.

Descriptive nature poetry has produced some of our best-loved and most accessible poetry, but today's poets also make larger environmental statements: Tessa Ransford imagines a protest by seabirds about the destruction of the marine environment; Poet Laureate Andrew Motion mourns the gradual disappearance of the sparrow; Fleur Adcock observes the everyday assaults of suburbia on wildlife habitats, in concrete pumping stations and leylandii hedges.

They are part of a long tradition. In the 19th century, John Clare - whose poems set to music were performed at StAnza by Gordon Tyrrell - watched his rural idyll destroyed by industry. At the turn of the 20th century, Edward Thomas became one of the first to link ecology and poetry, writing that "man seems to me a little part of nature and the one I enjoy least".

However, it could be argued, as Robert Crawford does, that the link goes back even further. Robert Burns in To a Mouse laments how "man's dominion/ Has broken nature's social union". Crawford pointed out that Burns, as a ploughman, worked hands-on with the land, while later poets, such as the Romantics, roamed the hills as spectators of nature.

A moving celebration of those who worked the land came from Hugh Lupton's Praise Songs, a performance using poetry, story and song - a highlight of the festival. Performed to great acclaim on Radio 3's Late Junction, it is the story of Jennie Wing, a horseman's daughter from Cambridgeshire who died recently at 104. What begins as a quaint memory of rural childhood becomes a powerful account of a life begun in a different age and its disappointed hopes.

As Jennie's father's horses knew his voice, so did the cattle know the cattle calls of the women who milked them, and these were woven into a sound poem by Valerie Gillies. Gillies describes her career as "a lifelong journey through Scotland's landscape and folklore", but old superstitions are not always in tune with nature: those who hammer coins into a wishing tree are killing the tree with their enthusiasm.

Kathleen Jamie argued she does not want to be pigeonholed as a nature poet, although she has produced award-winning work in this field. She writes of nature both in close-up and with a wider perspective on the planet and its ills. She said she once hoped to free herself from language, the better to experience the natural world. But she came to realise that language is the best way we have to understand it, and our task is to listen to its often-unheard voice.

Yet she cautioned against a rose-tinted view of nature, the urge to reducing it to a force over which we have mastery, which we experience only on Sunday strolls: "What disturbs me is that we can come to think of nature as foxes and primroses - what about diphtheria?"

Jamie not only writes about nature, she uses nature - its images and process - to write about other things. For this reason it is wrong to expect poets to be polemical; the world is their toolbox as well as their subject. Thus, Michael Longley writes about seals, but produces a love poem, and David Harsent writes about the hare, and travels into territory both mythological and ecological.

StAnza 2006 was another success, full of poetic richness. Some spellbinding performances, notably from Motion, Tony Curtis and Sheenagh Pugh. Newer talents finding a voice in the Pamphlet Poets section notably included Andrew Philip, Andrew Forster and Angela McSeveney.

And speaking of the future, next year's festival is the tenth StAnza, and organisers are already planning an extra- special programme. Too bad it's a whole year until then.