Can Poetry Save the Earth?


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A Field Guide to Nature Poems

John Felstiner

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At a time of environmental crises, poetry can reawaken us to the beauty and fragility of our natural world

Poems vivifying nature have gripped people for centuries. From Biblical times to the present day, poetry has continuously drawn us to the natural world. In this thought-provoking book, John Felstiner explores the rich legacy of poems that take nature as their subject, and he demonstrates their force and beauty. In our own time of environmental crises, he contends, poetry has a unique capacity to restore our attention to our environment in its imperiled state. And, as we take heed, we may well become better stewards of the earth.

In forty brief and lucid chapters, Felstiner presents those voices that have most strongly spoken to and for the natural world. Poets—from the Romantics through Whitman and Dickinson to Elizabeth Bishop and Gary Snyder—have helped us envision such details as ocean winds eroding and rebuilding dunes in the same breath, wild deer freezing in our presence, and a person carving initials on a still-living stranded whale.

Sixty color and black-and-white images, many seen for the first time, bear out visually the environmental imagination this book discovers—a poetic legacy more vital now than ever.

John Felstiner, from Stanford University, wrote the prize-winning Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew and Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu.

“Felstiner's text here is a series of deep reflections on some of the finest, steadiest British and American poets of the last five centuries, especially the twentieth.  It is not about their ideology or activism, but their seeing of the actual world, their ‘dreaming’ as the Mojave storytellers might say, the story of the earth—and their deeply felt love for it.  Poetry is, quietly and in the best sense, pagan.  Our own English-language poets have—John Felstiner shows us—done their work.  It's up to us now and on forward to remember and learn from that.”—Gary Snyder, author of Mountains and Rivers Without End

“A really smart account of how American poets have understood the natural world. This book will be of great use to the poetry-challenged like me, who need help slowing down enough to take in what's being said. It may not save the earth (though it will surely help), but nature poetry can help save you.”—Bill McKibben, author of American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau

"John Felstiner’s study is a remarkable attempt to bring the rich tradition of nature poetry to our aid in the current and ongoing ecological crisis.  I find particularly moving his extraordinary range of sympathy for the very varied poets he discusses."—Harold Bloom

"It is John Felstiner's unique vision of the nature poem as a bio-world in itself—holding safe for us what we have freely endangered—that gives this book a radiance of power and conviction. It also marks it out as of central importance in the developing conversation on poetry and the environment."—Eavan Boland, author of An Origin Like Water

“This is a remarkable volume that tells us something about poetry, and a lot about the earth—no small achievement.”—The Weekly Standard

"John Felstiner's delightful Can Poetry Save the Earth? . . . chooses to show us, in vivid and articulate terms, the numerable ways in which 'Poems make us stop, look, and listen long enough for imagination to act, connecting, committing ourselves to the only world we've got.' Felstiner  . . . knows as well as anyone that the obvious answer to the question in his title is 'No.' Nonetheless, the rich density of his quotations and his loving attentiveness to the detail of the work of poets from William Wordsworth to Derek Walcott might persuade a sympathetic reader to, at least, a grudging 'Maybe a bit.'

The book's especial distinction, among the plethora of ecocritical studies of poetry now extant, is Felstiner's determination to value poetry for its rhythms, its phonemic patterning, its semantic depth and latitude. If nothing else, he seems to suggest, poetic language in all its determined brevity and self-reference enforces an act of attention in a swirling, ever-hastening infosphere." - Science

"Can Poetry Save the Earth? leads the reader through the landscapes of some wonderful poems . . . this book is manifestly a labour of love. Felstiner manages to be both ecstatic and admonitory, visionary and attentive to detail. His immense reading is like a forest through which he has lovingly carved out several inviting paths. That one is tempted to ponder alternative ways of organizing the book (poems about rivers, trees, meadows? poems about gardens, animals, the seasons?) is an acknowledgment of Felstiner's learned, enthusiastic and hopeful achievement." - Times Literary Supplement

"Moving from Genesis to American poet Gary Snyder, this book is both richly illustrated and deeply contemplative." -
Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Felstiner's wide-ranging book reads like an ongoing discussion that stretches from the Psalms to Romanticism . . . and closes with Gary Snyders and other elders of today." - Orion

"a fine, clearly written and moving cry for an awareness of the depredations human kind are wreaking on the planet." -
Birmingham Post (UK)

"A timely and handsome book with appeal to all stewards of the earth." - San Francisco Chronicle

"Can Poetry Save the Earth? has reintroduced the general audience to a serious discussion of nature poetry.  He has connected contemporary work with the great strains of Romantic sensibilities, and has shown a way to understand some of the new work happening around us." —Keith Taylor, Michigan Quarterly Review

"[Gary] Snyder's characteristically astute endorsement of the book on its back cover, praising Felstiner's 'deep reflections' on poets 'seeing the actual world' and telling 'the story of the earth' is an accurate assessment of the book, which is not only a 'field guide' but also, like Edward Thomas accompanying Robert Frost in the Glouscestershire countryside, a companion one would like to walk with when exploring new places or revisiting fond familiar ones. . . . Thoughts along these lines are a testament to what Felstiner's book accomplishes and another of the reasons why it would be appropriate for compilers of introductory textbooks to follow its form, content, and aspirations."—Leon Lewis, Magill's Literary Annual 2010

“An invaluable book.”—Jean-Christophe Nothias, The Global Journal

“This is a remarkable book.”—Terry Gifford, Green Letters, Journal for the Association for Studies in Literature and the Environment

"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."—Dennis Fritzinger, Warrior Poets

Selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2010 in the English & American category
ISBN: 9780300168136
Publication Date: October 26, 2010
440 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
22 color + 41 b/w illus.
Paul Celan

Poet, Survivor, Jew

John Felstiner

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