John Felstiner: The Future We Want
Can Poetry Save the Earth?
I believe in the necessity for every conscious person now to recognize our utter interdependence within the non-human world we belong to, before our lives disintegrate. The natural world we’re both part of and apart from.
But what use are poems, 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 all-out difficult response?
In America the Beautiful and elsewhere, carbon-sucking forests and their wildlife have been lost to logging, wildlands lost to drilling, prai¬rie and grassland to overgrazing, wetland and desert to developers, woods to snowmobiles, dunes to "off-road" and "all-terrain" vehicles, canyons to dams, soil and aquifers to agribusiness, coral reefs to poison and dynamite fishing, whales and dolphins to military sonar, seabirds to oil spills, pollinating bees to pesticides and development, gorillas to charcoal barons, elephants tigers snow leopards white rhinos hippos to poachers for bushmeat and fur and skins and ivory, brilliant macaw parrots to illegal bird dealers, 73 million sharks a year (“finned” then tossed back to drown) lost to shark-fin soup, animal and plant species to plunder, to cosmetic, sartorial, culinary, medicinal, and aphrodisiac vanity, and to corporate plus consumerist greed.
Realistically, what can poetry say, much less do, about global warming, seas rising and acidified, water and air polluted, species endangered, wilderness road-ridden, rain¬forests razed, along with strip mining and mountaintop removal, clearcutting, overfishing, overeating, overconsumption, overdevelopment, overpopulation, and so on and on? Well, next to nothing. "Poetry" and "policy" make an awk¬ward half-rhyme at best. Yet next to nothing would still be something.
If poems touch our full humanness, they can quicken awareness and bolster respect for this ravaged resilient earth we live on.
I believe nothing matters more than attentiveness. Someone said long ago, "Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul." And my own hope, especially for the young generation? That attentiveness to the makings of nature poems, their sound and rhythm and word-craft, can lead to, can bring on attentiveness to the very nature these poems reveal to us.
Can Poetry Save the Earth? The title’s vital character is its question mark. That question carries a desperate doubt, Can Poetry Save the Earth?, and at the same time a question bears hope, commitment, a future.
John Felstiner published Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, Can Poetry Save the Earth? / A Field Guide to Nature Poems, and co-edited the Norton anthology Jewish American Literature. At Stanford since 1965, John received major prizes for his work and is a Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.