Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Can Poetry Save the Earth? A Field Guide to Nature Poems
by John Felstiner
396 pp. illustrated
Yale University Press

Back before heuristics, semiotics, deconstruction, evolutionary literary criticism, etc. etc. we had something called "close analysis," an attempt to read poems on their own terms. I thought this particular art was dead, until John Felstiner applied it to a range of poets writing in English, about aspects of the natural world. And lo! It still works.

At least it works for me. Felstiner adds plenty of biographical background, too, which is valuable in itself when you see the majesty of the lives of revered but not exactly famous poets like Kenneth Rexroth and the exemplary W.S. Merwin. Maybe I'm prejudiced because this is how I learned to read poetry--beginning with a poem Felstiner begins with, the ancient anonymous "Western wind, when will thou blow." And many of these are poets I especially admire, from Keats to Wallace Stevens to William Stafford, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder. But I also appreciate the resurrection of Robert Frost, not taken seriously in my college poetry classes, and Theodore Roethke, likewise, although he meant a lot to me back then.

But even those without sentimental attachment can profit from these cogent essays, and the poems they are about. There are some evocative illustrations as well. Plus the author's brief at the end, confronting the question of his title directly, and making a persuasive case for a craftily affirmative answer. "Can poetry save the earth? For sure, person by person, our earthly challenge hangs on the sense and spirit that poems can awaken."

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