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The Weekly Standard
“This is a remarkable volume that tells us something about poetry, and a lot about the earth—no small achievement.”—The Weekly Standard
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.
“This is a remarkable volume that tells us something about poetry, and a lot about the earth—no small achievement.”—The Weekly Standard
"[Can Poetry Save the Earth?] 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."--Leon Lewis, Magill''s Literary Annual 2010
— Leon Lewis
“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
"And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good." Not just "good," as when "God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good." Or when "God called the dry land earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he seas: and God saw that it was good." Or when God made two great lights for day and night, and let the waters bring forth living creatures, and made the beasts of the earth, "and God saw that it was good." Not just good but very good, tov me'od, and so God rested on the seventh day, the Sabbath.
Strangely enough, after God "created man in his own image ... male and female created he them," the Bible does not add, "God saw that it was good." But something else happened then and still reverberates for humankind. "God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."
Dominion. Long before the Israelites cameinto a land of milk and honey, Eden may have existed within the Fertile Crescent in Mesopotamia. There Gilgamesh, a Sumerian king "who knew the way things were before the flood," slew the guardian of the Cedar Forest and felled its trees for his city. A dominant Sumerian culture flourished by channeling irrigation from the Euphrates, until overuse and evaporation eventually left the soil poisoned by salt.
Dominion, from the same Hebrew root as "tyrant": an ominous gift, like the command to replenish the earth and "subdue it." That command fed the zeal, so mixed in its effects, of America's Puritan colonists and westward settlers. Governor William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation shows sensuous affection for an abundant "new" world but a skewed eye for the "hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men" in need of subduing. Meanwhile, in England, Francis Bacon, contemporary with Bradford, set out the scientific method and foretold technology's "jurisdiction over the nature of things": "Nature to be commanded, must be obeyed," Bacon said, with an ambiguity that still bedevils us.
Yet Hebraic legacy, while fostering dominion over nature, also ordains stewardship: "And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it," l'avdah ul'shamra, to work and to guard. Adam is of the "earth," adamah, and the first humans are "given every green herb for meat," then told to let the land rest every seventh year for replenishing.
Just as vital to the Bible scene and story is an everpresent wilderness where momentous events take place. "In the wilderness," God gives water to Hagar and Ishmael, Moses encounters God as the Hebrews wander toward Canaan, Elijah hears the Lord's "still small voice," Isaiah's voice "crieth in the wilderness" preparing a way for Messiah, and Jesus resists temptation.
A mighty litany of wild nature untouched, unknowable by mere man, climaxes the folkloric book of Job. From a whirlwind the Lord demands of Job, "Who hath divided a watercourse for the overflowing of waters, or a way for the lightning of thunder; To cause it to rain on the earth, where no man is; on the wilderness, wherein there is no man?" Nothing in Holy Writ equals the rolling surf of God's questions silencing Job, who has suffered calamity and craves justice. Job's friends tell him, "God thundereth marvelously with his voice," and via the Hebrew poets (and Bible translators) He does just that: "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? ... When the morning stars sang together.... Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? ... Doth the eagle mount up at thy command, and make her nest on high? ... Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook?"
A diving sphere in 1925 descended into the springs of the sea. Given the species-wasting whale-hunting pursued into the twenty-first century, Leviathan's majesty now seems almost crushed. Still that biblical awe of nonhuman nature persists with a modern bent. Henry David Thoreau cursed ravenous fur traders in 1862 and heard the railroad at Walden Pond: "what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World." That same year, George Perkins Marsh was writing his little-known Man and Nature, warning that earth's balanced, harmonious "sustenance of wild animals and wild vegetation" stood at risk from human action. A century later Wallace Stegner fought "the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment," urging that "wilderness preserved ... is good for our spiritual health."
However skewed the biblical sense of our earthly dominion appears today, Scripture does offer one saving grace: a lingo for the natural world. Just as God is deciding to make woman, a helpmeet for Adam, the narrative interrupts: "And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof." Then the story resumes with Adam's deep sleep, spare rib, and Eve.
Why, just before womankind comes into being, should the story pause for this event? Because the power of naming, in a patriarchal scheme, is reserved for man not woman? Or because the human couple should culminate all creation? At any rate, the gift of naming sets a benchmark before the Fall: "whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof." (And why not flora along with fauna? Maybe it's our closeness to other creatures.) "The poet is the sayer, the namer," Ralph Waldo Emerson announced, "He is a sovereign" whose American imperative is to "enjoy an original relation to the universe," and "fasten words again to visible things."
Looking for wildness in literature, Thoreau imagines "a poet who could impress the winds and streams into his service, to speak for him; who nailed words to their primitive senses, as farmers drive down stakes in the spring, which the frost has heaved; who derived his words as often as he used them,-transplanted them to his page with earth adhering to their roots." For some time now the sovereignty of words, imperial language, has come into question. This only sharpens the poet's task.
Despite Emerson's "He" and Thoreau's "his" and "him," a woman sixty miles west of Walden Pond was nailing words, enjoying an original relation to the universe. One of Emily Dickinson's canny, uncanny poems spots "A narrow Fellow in the Grass" without ever naming him snake or serpent, describes "a Whip lash/Unbraiding in the Sun," and says she
never met this Fellow Attended, or alone Without a tighter breathing And Zero at the Bone-
Walt Whitman, unaware of Dickinson though she'd skeptically heard of him, called his naked outdoor exercises "my Adamic air-bath and flesh-brushing from head to foot." "Adamic" has come to mean a poet's firsthand sense of naming things-what John Hollander in "Adam's Task" calls "Gay, first work, ever to be prior,/Not yet sunk to primitive."
A deep current runs from our mythic beginnings, from a world spoken into being-"And God said, Let there be light: and there was light"-into Adam's genius for naming. Made in the image of God, humankind gets an earthly version of that divine creative power. (Apparently Adam never misspoke, otherwise tiny mollusks in spiral shells might be crawling the face of the earth, thinking themselves "whales" not "snails.") Why and how we name the things of our world must stem, like much else good and ill, from the savvy of Homo sapiens. In this sense, we are all poets.
Our primal urge to speak the names of things tallies with a striking trait in the Bible. "O thou, that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, Lift up thy voice," we hear in Isaiah, "Say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!" Throughout the Bible, words and naming make for authenticity-breath and voice and speech and the command to speak, say, talk, tell, call, utter, declare, shout, cry, proclaim, praise, rejoice, sing, and make a joyful noise. Moses complains he is "slow of speech" but the Lord says "I will be with thy mouth." Isaiah is "of unclean lips" but an angel touches a live coal to his mouth. In Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah, "Speech reaches God because it comes from God." No wonder poets feel "called" to speak.
Who can utter the poignance of all that is constantly threatened, invaded, expended,
Denise Levertov asks in a psalmlike poem that has already answered her question with "shadow of eucalyptus ... miner's lettuce, / tender, untasted." No skepticism about the adequacy of words, about their signifying power, undermines biblical poetry. God stands as guarantor for human language.
When it came to translation, a long process renewed this superb Hebrew poetry, especially Psalms in the sixteenth-century Book of Common Prayer. Finally in 1611, when the King James Version emerged, William Shakespeare, George Herbert, Ben Jonson, and John Donne were in force. The poetics of biblical Hebrew found English at its height: "Blessed are those who, going through the vale of misery, use it for a well, and the springs are filled with water. They go from strength to strength." In exile, the poet of Lamentations muses on poetry itself: "What thing shall I liken to thee, O daughter of Jerusalem?"
In Psalms, people have found the Bible's intensest poetry and devotion alike. (Psalmos in Greek comes from plucking or twanging the harp, but the Hebrew Psalms, tehillim, means "praises.") As far back as David and Solomon, ten centuries before Christ, many of the Psalms were composed by a priestly guild for ritual worship. Yet their personal, often solitary voice gives these songs their hold on us. As does their emotional range, from despair to exaltation, beseeching to thanksgiving-so often couched in nature: "Save me from the lion's mouth ... in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee." "Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts: all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me."
Praise and twanging, spirit and music, fuse in the Psalms' charge, their thrust. This force finds its way into modern nature poems, however secular and colloquial, from Dickinson and Whitman to Robert Lowell and Denise Levertov. Take Levertov's book O Taste and See, as from Psalm 34, "O taste and see that the Lord is good." Or George Oppen's awestruck "Psalm," beginning "In the small beauty of the forest / The wild deer bedding down-/ That they are there!"
Not all Psalms touch on nature, but most do at some point, since the people they speak for existed hard by a harsh if sometimes fruitful landscape. The terrain yields imagery for desolation: "I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me." And for longing: "Like as the hart desireth the water brooks, so longeth my soul after thee, O God." Sometimes, famously, for succor and joy: "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters."
Naturally, wanting color and grip, the Bible's poets go local. Take the Hebrew maiden in Song of Songs, a "rose of Sharon" and "lily of the valleys": "My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire in the vineyards of En-gedi," the wilderness where David the "sweet singer of Israel" hid from Saul "upon the rocks of the wild goats." She says, "the fig-tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love." Equally besotted by her and nature, he replies, "thou hast dove's eyes within thy locks: thy hair is as a flock of goats, that appear from mount Gilead." Ages before industry and technology as we know them, this grazing, growing, fishing, hunting civilization turned up metaphors rising organically from where and how people lived: "honey and milk are under thy tongue." In fact biblical poetry has roots in earlier cult liturgy and songs reflecting that same landscape.
Sometimes not metaphor but straight proof of earthly sustenance fills a Psalm:
He sendeth the springs into the rivers: which run among the hills. All beasts of the field drink thereof: and the wild asses quench their thirst.
The shaping of such verse, the way it moves and grows, proves that if the natural world reveals divine presence, that presence needs human speech to show it. In the western tradition, at least, much poetry learns from the Psalms.
"The world is charged with the grandeur of God," Gerard Manley Hopkins begins a sonnet, putting earth first while echoing the opening of Psalm 19:
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament telleth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. Their sound is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
The "firmament telleth," the vault of sky. Declare, tell, utter, speech, language, voice, sound, words: someone wedded to the Hebrew tongue itself must have composed this Psalm, someone enthused with language and no less enthused (in + theos, god) with physical and animal nature. Even secular nature poetry lives if not by the grace of God then by the grace of language.
Rolling along as a Creation hymn to God's providence, Psalm 104 at the same time calls up a brimming, bristling earthly scene. It begins by celebrating Genesis, the first seven days. Then comes a panorama of wild nature, interdependent biodiversity, that exceeds in detail, let alone exuberance, the frugal style of Genesis.
10 He sendeth the springs into the rivers: which run among the hills. All beasts of the field drink thereof: and the wild asses quench their thirst. Beside them shall the fowls of the air have their habitation: and sing among the branches.... He bringeth forth grass for the cattle: and green herb for the service of men.
15 That he may bring food out of the earth, and wine that maketh glad the heart of man: and oil to make him a cheerful countenance, and bread to strengthen man's heart. The trees of the Lord also are full of sap: even the cedars of Libanus which he hath planted; Wherein the birds make their nests: and the fir-trees are a dwelling for the stork. The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats: and so are the stony rocks for the conies. He appointed the moon for certain seasons: and the sun knoweth his going down.
20 Thou makest darkness that it may be night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do move. The lions roaring after their prey: do seek their meat from God. The sun ariseth, and they get them away together: and lay them down in their dens. Man goeth forth to his work, and to his labour: until the evening. O Lord, how manifold are thy works: in wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy riches.
25 So is the great and wide sea also: wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts. There go the ships, and there is that Leviathan: whom thou hast made to take his pastime therein. These wait all upon thee: that thou mayest give them meat in due season. When thou givest it them they gather it: and when thou openest thy hand they are filled with good. When thou hidest thy face they are troubled: when thou takest away their breath they die, and are turned again to their dust.
30 When thou lettest thy breath go forth they shall be made: and thou shalt renew the face of the earth. The glorious Majesty of the Lord shall endure for ever: the Lord shall rejoice in his works. The earth shall tremble at the look of him: if he do but touch the hills, they shall smoke. I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live: I will praise my God while I have my being. And so shall my words please him: my joy shall be in the Lord.
Always naming, always words galvanizing the things of this world: "The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats: and so are the stony rocks for the conies." Here the Book of Common Prayer ekes out extra music, risking redundance ("stony rocks") to load this verse with three resounding o-sounds where the King James Version merely says, "and the rocks for the conies." You can hear that resonance in young British choristers chanting the Psalm at evensong. And what of those conies, an English rabbit or Old World sort of woodchuck (Proverbs calls them "a feeble folk, yet make they their houses in the rocks"). Even rodents make it into the psalmist's cosmos along with moon and sun, lion and Leviathan.
Excerpted from Can Poetry Save the Earth? by JOHN FELSTINER Copyright © 2009 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted February 20, 2010
I've always liked how philosopher Alan Watts explained the phenomenon of the human race: it's like the apple tree producing that thing so vastly different from the tree trunk and branches--the apple. So, too, the Earth produces people. We belong here, we are a product of Mother Earth. Professor John Felstiner gives us an overview of what thoughtful people have written over the years, spanning from biblical times to Mount St. Helens, about the interplay between us two-legged creatures dealing with other natural forces.
This is a book to savor over the years. Professor Felstiner has kindly done the hard work for us, selecting the poems, excerpting sections, then analyzing them in essay form. The reader's job is to enjoy and, when curiosity gets the better of us, carry on our own discovery of the poem and/or the poet. The title asks, "Can Poetry Save the Earth?" The jury is still out on that question, but poetry can certainly bring joy and relief to our lives, and as the author observes, "One by one, the will to act may rise within us."