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Felstiner on poetry, environmentalism

John Felstiner

John Felstiner

Felstiner book

Felstiner book

BY CYNTHIA HAVEN

The nexus between poetry and the environment is not self-evident to most. That's why Felstiner wrote Can Poetry Save the Earth? A Field Guide to Nature Poems (Yale University Press) in time for Earth Day, April 22.

In the last decade, Felstiner has become a passionate advocate for the environment—and a passionate advocate for the poetry that celebrates it.

He says he's not alone. For example, he notes that Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the 1962 book that is credited with launching the environmental movement, begins with an epigraph from Keats.

For Felstiner, the Damascus moment came in the sylvan beauty of Woodside, where he was a resident nearly a decade ago at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. Noted for his award-winning translations of Paul Célan's poetry, he was working on a project about creative resistance during the Holocaust when he realized he had another topic closer at hand: "I have something more important to do. I'm not a scientist or a policymaker, I'm not a nature writer," he said, deciding that he must be an environmentalist "for fear of being irrelevant."

"In fact, environmental urgency trumps everything else," he said. "I say that with due respect to the horrible tragedies happening all over the world."

He began to wonder how he could use poetry about nature to reach people, using "the pleasure of poetry to reach their consciousness, and their consciousness to reach their conscience."

"What's the transition from consciousness to conscience—so that you will never drop an empty beer can in a bush?" he said.

The book that emerged from his labors—including six years teaching the Introduction to the Humanities course titled Literature into Life—took nine years to write. Each chapter focuses on a poet who has spoken about the natural world, from the Psalmist to modern poets. "It was totally obsessive during these years," he said.

As we hover on the environmental point of no return, Felstiner argues that poetry may have a singular capacity to return our attention to our environment before it's too late. It may also make us better stewards of the Earth.

As he writes in his book, "We've a chance to recognize and lighten our footprint in a world where all of nature matters vitally." Felstiner quotes Stanford alumnus and poet Robert Hass, who longs not for the moment "when the deer freezes in the shade / and looks at you and you hold very still" but the "moment after / when she flicks her ears & starts to feed again."

For nonscientists, poetry might be an easier way to approach tough issues: "It's guaranteed jargon-proof," Felstiner said.

Can poetry save the Earth? "It took a long time to arrive at that title," he said. "When I finally hit upon it, it was accepted immediately by the press.

"The question mark at the end—everything rides on the question mark," he added. "The obvious answer is no. Poetry can't save the world, but it can help. It can help save you."