Listen to article
It’s that time of year when most of us are savoring the last little remembrance of summer and watching the torrent of greens make a slow burn toward orange, red, yellow, and brown. If you’re inclined to find an apple orchard or a late field of raspberries and set your hands to the goodness of their yield, you might also tuck this volume in your bag and ask the proprietor of said landscape if you could sit awhile to read after your bins and pockets and cheeks are full. If you’re also inclined to savor poetry, to revisit the canonical figures you read way back in college, you might appreciate discovering what Stanford professor John Felstiner has to say about how these poets admired, investigated, and championed the natural world.
True, much has been said about Keats, Yeats, Dickinson, Frost. But what was each poet’s particular ken to nature? Was the anonymous author of “Western Wind”—one of the earliest recorded poems—an environmentalist, as Felstiner suggests? And how have more contemporary poets like Denise Levertov and recent U.S. poet laureate W. S. Merwin addressed ecological ruin in their writing?
From the Psalms to Gary Snyder, in 42 succinct chapters divided chronologically into three sections, Felstiner accomplishes the good and tidy work of his subtitle: he offers a field guide to help readers navigate the world of nature poems and, naturally, the poets who penned them. Understanding what Felstiner qualifies as a “nature poem” is a little tricky, but he spends considerable time illuminating each poet’s historical context, literary style, and influences. In fact, a more helpful subtitle might have been “A Field Guide to Poets Who Write About Nature.” Not as catchy, I realize. I also find the question of whether poetry can save the earth unhelpful, but let’s table such quibbles for now. It is perhaps more important to catch the scope of Felstiner’s project and allow his deep fondness, vast and motley source material, and engrossing prose style to make a believer of you that poetry can, in fact, do anything at all—say, capture something for a brief moment and simultaneously free it to be surprising and new—or, as T. S. Eliot says, “be still and still moving.”
Field guide though it may be, Felstiner attempts to define the very nature of poetry and take on some of poetry’s messier conversations, such as the interrelationship of content and form and how prosody (syllabic patterns of stress and unstress) alters our reading of certain lines. As a poet might, he uses metaphor and simile to speak about poetry itself, arguing that nature poems work so well because of the kinship between the essential qualities of poetry and water—”flowing and yet seeming motionless.” Felstiner contends that there is indeed news in poems—an acknowledged echo of William Carlos Williams’ oft-quoted “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.” In fact, Felstiner asserts that this news “creates a sustainable energy” and allows us to attend to and care for a natural world in desperate need of care. “Together the crisis and the tradition,” he writes, “make for a time of urgent hope. . . . The poems gathered here may end up turning your eye and ear toward a world that is good to live in.”
One of the true gifts of this volume, however, is Felstiner’s source material beyond the poems themselves. He blessedly spends a portion of each short chapter close reading at least one poem, revisiting such classics as Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “To Autumn,” Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Felstiner also pulls from the poets’ letters and their journal or diary entries; he offers historical context and, when apropos, the poems’ publication details. He cites well-known scholars and reaches forward and backward in time to show who influenced the poet and whom, in turn, the poet influenced. Truly, the circumference of information shooting out like dogwood branches around the poems is astounding—and accomplished quickly, almost quietly. One gathers up armfuls of literary history and commentary yet doesn’t feel as though she is reading showy (or dry) academic essays. The bevy of information is refreshing and even winsome; as a proviso, though, it might take readers a few chapters to relax into it.
One other material element to note is Felstiner’s inclusion of several plates with illustrations—a sketch from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ journal, for example—and facsimiles of original manuscripts. (Felstiner actually analyzes Emily Dickinson’s handwriting in one—O, nerd’s delight!) There is also a section of full-color paintings and photographs, some of which Felstiner took himself (e.g., the cellar-bin at Robert Frost’s farm and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Counting-out Rhyme” posted in the woods of her estate). Felstiner draws a connection between what visual art and poetry do, and it is helpful to have portions of both here. After all, what would a field guide be without startlingly relevant and revealing images?
Chapters that might be especially fascinating for Perspectives readers are ones in which Felstiner investigates how a poet understood the natural world theologically or dealt with the reigning ideas of such in his or her lifetime—for example, whether heeding Genesis and “man’s dominion” leads to capitalist consumption or reverent stewardship. The chapter on Walt Whitman highlights Whitman’s belief that a mutual force links us to nature, a belief that placed him in beleaguered relationship with his literary forebears—Emerson, particularly. Whitman’s bold assertions mapped new poetic terrain: “I find I incorporate gneiss,” he writes, “coal, long-threaded moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots,/ And am stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over.” He makes clear that he is one with the elements: “I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass. / My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air.” Felstiner playfully says of Whitman, “A stimulating fellow, but you wouldn’t want him dropping in often,” and notes that, among his contradictions, Whitman is highly psalmic while rejecting “bibles and all creeds.” Dickinson, too, though not as gabby as Whitman, “doubts human sovereignty and Adam’s gift of naming,” argues Felstiner. She offers irreverent reverence: “In the name of the Bee— / And of the Butterfly— And of the Breeze—Amen!” And then, of course, there’s Gerard Manley Hopkins (a particularly strong chapter, even if Hopkins is ripe for the picking as a nature poet). While Felstiner analyzes and revels in such favorites as “Pied Beauty” and “God’s Grandeur,” he also spotlights several lesser-known “protest” poems such as “Binsley Poplars”:
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled . . .
not spared, not one. . . .
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green! . . .
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
And that, dare I return to the issue of titles, might win my vote: “The Beauty Been: A Field Guide to Nature Poets.” Hopkins, Felstiner shows us, is able both to rejoice and to lament with sincere and pitched fervency. Rejoicing or lamenting (sometimes simultaneously) are what we, the readers of poetry, might do as well. Poetry can prompt us that far, and even farther, but to question whether poetry can save the earth is to my mind like asking whether YouTube or the Euro or origami can save the earth. Much in poetry may awaken us, transform us, compel us; whether that means the earth will be saved or not seems a little like a ploy by the marketing team at Yale University Press. Not a horrible thing, as ploys go, and Felstiner acknowledges nearly as much when he says in his closing note that “[Environmental sanity] needs fieldwork, science, journalism, activism, and policy to make life livable for us all. ‘Looking out your window’ [quoted from El’Jay Johnson], though, reacting to a poem’s pulse and images, may strike deeper than policy pronouncements.”
So, two final thoughts: First, readers of the Bible may have already had a primer in attending to a poem’s pulse and images in their familiarity with the Psalms. Felstiner’s first chapter examines Psalm 104 and suggests that, for most Western nature poets, their roots are by and large biblical. Second, Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver are two contemporary nature poets who perhaps are known to Perspectives readers as poets of faith as well. Though Felstiner’s cut-off is a 1930 birthdate, he mentions, among others, both Berry (b. 1934) and Oliver (b. 1935) in his afterword as nature poets to seek out. While I wouldn’t suggest either of their most recent books, Berry’s The Country of Marriage (1978) or A Timbered Choir: Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 (1998) and Oliver’s Pulitzer-winning New and Selected Poems (1992) hold the best of these poets’ writing and deliver both unique and compelling voices to the landscape of nature poems. Indeed, a fair response to Felstiner’s titular question might be Mary Oliver’s challenge at the end of “The Summer Day,” after she admits to having spent the afternoon gazing at a grasshopper:
I don’t know exactly what prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?