Reviewed by Chris Smith.
John Felstiner’s recent book Can Poetry Save The Earth?: A Field Guide to Nature Poems, belies its unimaginative title, and offers us a rich, historical look at how the poetic imagination has inspired a deeper appreciation and stewardship of nature. In the book’s preface Felstiner hones his focus:
Can poems help, when times demand environmental science and history, governmental 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? … Because we are what the beauty and firce of the poems reach toward, we’ve a chance to recognize and lighten our footprint in a world where all of nature matters vitally (xiii).
Beginning with the biblical witness to nature – particularly that of Genesis and the Psalms – Felstiner launches into a historical survey of nature poetry, and does so with a deep passion for both nature and nature poetry. My main disappointment is that he typically only includes snippets of poems, presumably for the sake of brevity. This survey wends its way through history ending with Gary Snyder’s work in the mid-twentieth century. In a brief afterword, Felstiner waxes philosophic:
How then to find a way of living on earth? Our animal bodies are “of the earth, earthy,” as the Good Book says, yet in experiencing nonhuman nature we don’t truly know it. We sense but can’t really grasp stone or tree, let alone stream or bird. Still, at times, the saving grace of attentiveness, and the way poems hold things still for a moment, makes us mindful of fragile resilient life” (357).
Can Poetry Save The Earth?: A Field Guide to Nature Poems is a valuable book that not only serves as a superb introduction to the tradition of nature poetry, but also just might serve to provide a deep rooting and inspiration for a new generation of nature poets.