Monday, 15 of July of 2024

Can Poetry Save the Earth?

Can Poetry Save the Earth? – A Field Guide to Nature Poems, by John Felstiner

Review by Dennis Fritzinger


A tribute-reading to celebrate Can Poetry Save the Earth? was held at the Berkeley Ecology Center with local poets contributing. Poets, poet-activists, and eco-activists were in attendance, as well as the book’s author, John Felstiner. Poetry Flash was represented, as well as Earth First! and the Ecology Center. The small space was filled with people and lively poetry as the readers each read several poems by a poet they had picked from the book.

The night featured poems by Elizabeth Bishop, Gary Snyder, Pablo Neruda, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and a host of others. Each reader brought his or her interpretation in the way he or she read, words emphasized or de-emphasized, the music of the lines rising off the page. We encountered moose, trees, asphalt, and a host of other things freshly imagined and served up, inviting us to see with new eyes the commonplace wonders of the world. Because it’s the poet, always, with the poet’s powers of observation and way with words, that can do this. And each of the 40 poets covered in the book show this, time and again.

A good way to appreciate this book is to pick up a copy, read it, and then hold your own celebration with local poets and poetry lovers reading poems by poets in the book. By sharing the words of the poets we find here, we bring delight to each other and ourselves, and provide spiritual nourishment to our community, one poem at a time.

At 396 pages including Index, this book is an important addition to the study of English and American poetry, and a worthy Field Guide to Nature Poetry at the same time. Can Poetry Save the Earth? is the book I wanted to write, but John Felstiner beat me to it.



The Introduction written for this book would not be out-of-place in a copy of the Earth First! Journal–in fact it would probably be the best-written piece there, and no less radical than any other piece. One difference would be that John is exploring the effect of poetry on its reader, writer, and society in general.

John notes that poetry is written by people for people, and that all action starts with individuals. He goes on to describe what poetry is about, likening it to freezing a moment in a way that allows us to sense its going on. Poetry allows us to see the world afresh, and that, I take it, is sometimes what it takes in order to engage us again, to wake up the interest we had in everything when we were children, to take fewer things for granted, and to enlarge our vision to the relationships between things and ourselves, ourselves and things. Even to blur the distinction.

By organizing his book by poet, the author has provided a trail guide to each poet’s particular trail, often quoting lines or whole passages to give a flavor of what you will be seeing when you rush to the library or bookshelf to get a collection of their poems. Considering how well-cooked this volume is, one’s mouth waters at the thought of a second volume devoted to more recent poets like Duane Niatum and Mary Oliver.

Here, and in interviews, Felstiner draws a comparison between the poems in this book and the poetry of Paul Celan, French Holocaust survivor. Celan’s poems were a poetry of resistance, and the green poems by the poets in Can Poetry Save the Earth? also form a poetry of resistance–resistance against the forces ravaging the planet.

From page one John leads us on a guided tour of this resistance starting with the Biblical Genesis and proceeding, in a meandering way, down through warrior poets W.S. Merwin and Gary Snyder.

As he examines each poet through a representative poem or three, picking the poems apart with the rigor of a scientist down to their syllables and even smaller units of sound, we appreciate John’s attention to even the smallest details. Not only does John have a good ear, he is adept at picking out patterns that unite different poems in the book, like the constant theme of the standing wave.

The book has so many good quotes it’s difficult to pick a favorite. Here’s one, from the Preface:

“Can poems help, when the times demand environmental science and history, government leadership, corporate and consumer moderation, nonprofit activism, local initiatives? Why call on the pleasures of poetry, when the time has come for an all-out response?

Response starts with individuals, it’s individual persons that poems are spoken by and spoken to. One by one, the will to act may rise within us. Because we are what the beauty and force of poems reach toward, we’ve a chance to recognize and lighten our footprint in a world where all of nature matters vitally.”

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