Can Poetry Save the Earth?
While there are arguably more people writing competent if not exceptional poetry than at any time since the advent of modern English, there appears to be a paradoxical decrease in the prominence and influence of the poet as a figure of importance in the American cultural community. More than half of U.S. states have a designated poet laureate, but the people occupying these positions are rarely recognizeable to the states’ inhabitants. One factor in this separation is a displacement between the approach of academic commentators and the reasons that literate nonprofessionals read poems.
John Felstiner, a professor of literature at Stanford University, addresses this disjunction in Can Poetry Save the Earth? by selecting and discussing nature poems, primarily from the Romantic era to the present. He begins with one of the first nature poems, the biblical book of Genesis, and concludes with the work of one of the most accessible contemporary poets, the pioneering environmental visionary Gary Snyder. These framing selections emphasize a sacred regard for the planet and an encompassing secular engagement with the matter and materials of everyday experience. In his discussions of poems, their authors, and the cultural contexts from which the poems evolved, Felstiner intends not only to answer the question his title poses in the affirmative but also to develop a positive argument for a parallel query: Can an awareness of one’s environment lead to a deeper involvement with all that a poem can provide?
Felstiner’s introductory chapter demonstrates his method. It begins with an enthusiastic brief for poetry itself, including familiar quotes such as William Carlos Williams’s impassioned proclamation in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” that
It is difficultto get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lackof what is found there
An important facet of “the news” referred to is the history of the destructive misuses of land, water, and living creatures in the United States since the arrival of Europeans on the continent. This volume’s convival conversation about poets and their workmarked by neighborly descriptions of poets such as the “boisterous” Dylan Thomas, the “peasant poet” John Clare, and the “Missouri-born T. S. Eliot”shifts toward a professional historian’s rigorous, informative account of continental dispoilation stemming from a fundamental misunderstanding of how to live in harmony with the landscape.
By the end of the opening chapter, Felstiner has effectively illustrated humanity’s devastating disregard for environmental necessities with many statements from the historical record. He has also juxtaposed these statements with observations from poets to demonstrated the ways that a mindful awareness of languagethe essence of poetry itselfis a part of a way of seeing that results in an understanding of the natural world. This perspective is one of the reasons he calls his book a “field guide,” linking the explorer’s report on phenomena to the poet’s image-making vision of the cosmos. The heart of Felstiner’s project is a celebration of the capacity to see, understand, and appreciate the “human universe” (in the poet Charles Olson’s term) through languagein conjunction with a guided response to the natural universe calling on all of the senses.
The linkage between the perilous condition of Earth’s ecological systems and the endangered or neglected state of poetic discourse beyond a coterie of devotees and initiates shapes Felstiner’s program. In his preface, he declares his intentions to address “every sort of reader,” an ambition common to guidebooks written by experts whose desire to share their knowledge is fired by enthusiasm and fueled by a diligent application of all their senses to the focus of their attention. The book follows the pattern of reports from the field, echoing Robert Duncan’s observation about “the opening of the field” in the mid-twentieth century, when conceptions of poetry and the poet moved outward from what has been called “academically sanctioned formalism” toward a poetics that had its origin in Walt Whitman’s work.
In this sense, Felstiner calls for a return to a primal impulse that paralleled the perspective of the English Romantic poets, while introducing an American voice and the vision of a different landmass. Olson characterized the New World by saying, “I take SPACE to be the central fact of man born in America.I spell it large because it comes large here. Large and without mercy.” It is through this “SPACE” that Felstiner, in collaboration with the poets whose work is an interaction with its dimensions, intends to guide his readers.
By beginning his discussion with the book of Genesis, Felstiner asserts that the environment, in its largest sense, is fundamental to human existence. The focus on the...
(The entire section is 2087 words.)