As John Felstiner asks, Can Poetry Save the Earth?

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We are often inspired by strong oratory based on solid data, and carefully expressed facts. Many of us spend our lives trying to craft messages from sprawling data to figure out the best way to proceed.

Yet we are also inspired by the beauty of words or images. In the US, a book was published recently called "Can Poetry Save the Earth". I found a story about it on the National Public Radio website.

The author of the book, John Felstiner, selected one poem that, he thought, could really save the earth if everyone read it.

"The Well Rising'
by William Stafford

The well rising without sound,
the spring on a hillside,
the plowshare brimming through the deep ground
everywhere in the field—

The sharp swallows in their swerve
flaring and hesitating
hunting for the final curve
coming closer and closer—

The swallow heart from wing beat to wing beat
counseling decision, decision:
thunderous examples. I place my feet
with care in such a world.

[Copyrighted material reproduced with the permission of Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota, from the original volume, “The Way It Is”, by William Stafford, 1977.]

The NPR story has spawned a chain of comment, which prompted me to make an enjoyable trip to the (rather dusty) poetry books on my shelves. My wandering through unfamiliar and slightly familiar verses reminded me that most of us need poetry at key times in our lives, such as marriages and funerals, or to help us think about emotionally wrenching events, such as wars.

Photo © Jimmy_Joe at Flickr
a Creative Commons license.

But I was surprised at how many poems in popular anthologies discuss the beauty or power of the natural world and our joy in it. It seems that nature moves in ways that information alone cannot. There are many, many famous poems from all cultures and times, some so famous as to be full-fledged clichés:

I WANDER'D lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils,
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

Here’s a verse from the 16th century, by Sir Edward Dyer (1540-1607) that remains relevant today, perhaps all the more so as climate change threatens the interconnected systems he refers to:

The lowest trees have tops, the ant her gall,
The fly her spleen, the little spark his heat;
The slender hairs cast shadows, though but small,
And bees have stings, although they be not great;
Seas have their source, and so have shallow springs:
And love is love, in beggars and in kings.

If the poetry anthologies are a good guide, all civilizations and all cultures rejoice in the beauty of nature. I was struck, though, that I reacted most strongly to works that described species and landscapes from my homeland. Climate change will alter something more than more than economies.


Julia Bucknall

Director for Environment and Natural Resources

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