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Can Poetry Save the Earth?

Can Poetry Save the Earth?: A Field Guide to Nature Poems

Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 440
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  • Book Info
    Can Poetry Save the Earth?
    Book Description:

    Poems vivifying nature have gripped people for centuries. From Biblical times to the present day, poetry has continuously drawn us to the natural world. In this thought-provoking book, John Felstiner explores the rich legacy of poems that take nature as their subject, and he demonstrates their force and beauty. In our own time of environmental crises, he contends, poetry has a unique capacity to restore our attention to our environment in its imperiled state. And, as we take heed, we may well become better stewards of the earth.

    In forty brief and lucid chapters, Felstiner presents those voices that have most strongly spoken to and for the natural world. Poets-from the Romantics through Whitman and Dickinson to Elizabeth Bishop and Gary Snyder-have helped us envision such details as ocean winds eroding and rebuilding dunes in the same breath, wild deer freezing in our presence, and a person carving initials on a still-living stranded whale.

    Sixty color and black-and-white images, many seen for the first time, bear out visually the environmental imagination this book discovers-a poetic

    legacy more vital now than ever.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15553-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Environmental Science, Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Preface The Poetry of Earth Is Never Dead
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction Care in Such a World
    (pp. 1-16)

    Around 1900 a tribal shaman chanted that prayer, in the Yokuts tongue:

    nim yèt·au t·ikexo texal

    maiayiu lomto . . .

    An anthropologist transcribed and translated it. With their oral culture the Yokuts people had dwelt in California’s San Joaquin Valley since prehistory, numbering in the tens of thousands. Now few if any speakers remain, but there are ways to call on the faith breathing life into that prayer.

    “My words are tied in one / With the great mountains.” Once upon many times and places, the bonding of words with nature was a given. “Let us make earth, Let...


    • “stony rocks for the conies” Singing Ecology unto the Lord
      (pp. 19-27)

      “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” Not just “good,” as when “God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.” Or when “God called the dry land earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he seas: and God saw that it was good.” Or when God made two great lights for day and night, and let the waters bring forth living creatures, and made the beasts of the earth, “and God saw that it was good.” Not just good...

    • “Western wind, when will thou blow” Anon Was an Environmentalist
      (pp. 28-33)

      Just hearing and speaking these honest lines is enough. Or better, singing them from this poem’s early manuscript. You can hear and see the melody reaching its highest pitch and longest hold at the very thought of “bed,” then hastening home on a wavelike cadence, eight notes running through one syllable: “a- gai . . . ai . . . ai . . . ai . . . ai . . . ai . . . ai . . . ain!” (plate 3)

      Elemental as it is, “Western Wind” opens a way to endure time and circumstance, aloneness and longing,...

    • “The stationary blasts of waterfalls” Blake, the Wordsworths, and the Dung
      (pp. 34-38)

      “Would to God that all the Lord’s people were Prophets.” When William Blake (1757–1827) echoed this biblical cry, he might have been thinking of the mad visionary Christopher Smart. Yet Blake had his own revolutionary fix on the world. “One thought fills immensity,” he assures us, and “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is, infinite.” And this brash absolute: “Where man is not, nature is barren.” Blake believed Innocence meant “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.” His vision burns through the natural world. Material,...

    • “The white Eddy-rose . . . obstinate in resurrection” Coleridge Imagining
      (pp. 39-45)

      Nature comes alive through human outreach, for Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834). William Blake is more absolute: “Where man is not, nature is barren.” Yet the rapt detail in Coleridge’s notebooks gives lakes and streams, hills and woods a life of their own. His conjugal image involves give-and-take, “we receive but what we give,” that word “but” meaning “only” and also “just.”

      Coleridge goes on:

      Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth

      A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud

      Enveloping the Earth.

      Then he gives this light a name:

      Joy, lady! is the spirit and the power,


    • “last oozings hours by hours” John Keats Eking It Out
      (pp. 46-55)

      He wishes instead “to look into some beautiful Scenery—for poetical purposes,” says John Keats (1795–1821), declining a weekend invitation. Soon afterward, less flip, he begins a sonnet on the song of grasshoppers and crickets, “The poetry of earth is never dead,” and after several lines tries again: “The poetry of earth is ceasing never.”

      Two years later, having nursed him devotedly for months, Keats lost his younger brother Tom to consumption. The death jolted his attempts to square poetry with “a World of Pains and troubles.” In “Ode to a Nightingale,” an aching heart starts from the world...

    • “Its only bondage was the circling sky” John Clare at Home in Helpston
      (pp. 56-63)

      Running everywhere here, John Clare (1793–1864) tells his children about his own childhood in the village of Helpston and East Anglia’s fen country. His early teens saw country landowners just beginning to mark out “preserves” for (hunting) game, so Clare says “nature’s” preserves with some force. “In a strange stillness watching for hours the little insects climb up & down the tall stems of the wood grass,” this son of a farm laborer and an illiterate mother learned lively loving attentiveness—we might be hearing a psalmist’s praise of God’s plenty. Victorian England would soon sponsor books likeEarth Lore...

    • “Nature was naked, and I was also” Adamic Walt Whitman
      (pp. 64-74)

      “Of pure American breed, large and lusty—age thirty-six years,” an early review ofLeaves of Grassdepicts its author, “never once using medicine—never dressed in black, always dressed freely and clean in strong clothes—neck open, shirt collar flat and broad, countenance tawny transparent red, beard well mottled with white, hair like hay after it has been mowed in the field and lies tossed and streaked.” This unsigned 1855 article in theBrooklyn Daily Timeshails “A rude child of the people!—No imitation—No foreigner—but a growth and idiom of America. . . . The effects...

    • “Earth’s most graphic transaction” Syllables of Emily Dickinson
      (pp. 75-87)

      “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I knowthatis poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I knowthatis poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way.” This is the “Belle of Amherst,” as she once jokingly called herself, Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), writing to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, man of letters, former Unitarian minister, champion of women’s rights, gun-running abolitionist who’d led the Union Army’s first Negro regiment. After meeting the...

    • “sick leaves . . . storm-birds . . . rotten rose . . . rain-drop” Nature Shadowing Thomas Hardy
      (pp. 88-93)

      “Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.” They’re not only dead and buried, but nature’s eroding their very names, their loving memory. Something less bleak than this, from Thomas Hardy (1840–1928), might be preferred, but listen to its relentless pulse. Usually an eight-syllable line has three or four accents. Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”:

      ’Twasbrilligand theslithy toves

      Didgyreand gimble in thewabe.

      W. B. Yeats:

      Andliftyourtender eyelids, maid,


      A. E. Housman:

      Butoh, goodLord, theverseyoumake,


    • “freshness deep down things” The World Charged by Gerard Manley Hopkins
      (pp. 94-103)

      The poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889) loved naming the things of earth and sea and air, pinpointing, likening them to other things, and playing with names:

      shallowing shore, crispings, cross-harrowed, grotted, whorled, wimpling, ricked and sharply inscaped, flaked or foiled like fungus, zigzag brooks ravelled out and shining, the huddling and gnarls of the water, the dance and swagging of the light green tongues or ripples of waves, the backdraught shrugging the stones together.

      All these are culled from his journals, where one day’s entry can hold as many as fifteen such items, the honeycomb cells of his imagination....

    • “O honey bees,/Come build in the empty house of the stare” Nature Versus History in W. B. Yeats
      (pp. 104-112)

      “I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree.” Born in 1865, rooted in west Ireland’s County Galway, William Butler Yeats died shortly before World War II broke out in 1939. Spanning the decades from Victorian to modern, his poems took on every question: love, sexuality, transience, age, death, local place and legend, mythic past and visionary future, nobility vis-à-vis common folk, country and city, dreams and responsibilities, private as against public, spiritual and earthly life, nature versus history. All this mattered in the world at large and vitally in...


    • “strangeness from my sight” Robert Frost and the Fun in How You Say a Thing
      (pp. 115-122)

      “Go forth, under the open sky, and list/To Nature’s teachings.” Though the advice and the meter fit, Robert Frost (1874–1963) could never have penned this, with its clichés and archaic “list” for “listen.” William Cullen Bryant, the popular nineteenth-century poet and journalist, was musing on mortality and coined this antidote that Frost’s mother, herself a mystically inclined poet, would quote at home. She also recited Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl” so often that one day at thirteen, cutting leather in a shoemaker’s shed, Robbie found he could say the whole poem by heart. When Frost later went forth under the...

    • “white water rode the black forever” Frost and the Necessity of Metaphor
      (pp. 123-129)

      Summer 1914 saw war looming, as Frost’sNorth of Bostoncame out in London to enthusiastic reviews. No less than three of these came from Edward Thomas, a younger Welsh writer deciding whether to enlist. The two men found personal and literary sympathies, and both loved plant life. Their friendship quickly became intense. MeanwhileNorth of Boston’s popularity in America opened up Frost’s reach. He bought a farm near New Hampshire’s White Mountains, then later moved to another in the Green Mountains of southern Vermont. Besides poetry, he pursued teaching and lecturing that flourished for the next half-century. “Barding around,”...

    • “Larks singing over No Man’s Land” England Thanks to Edward Thomas, 1914–1917
      (pp. 130-135)

      “He reminds us that words are alive, and not only alive but still half-wild and imperfectly domesticated.” Edward Thomas (1878–1917) might have been speaking for himself and “those who love all life so well that they do not kill even the slender words but let them play on.” As it happens, he meant the peasant poet John Clare, a century earlier, who loved “tracking wild searches through the meadow grass.” Like Clare, Thomas owned close knowledge of animals and plants, of “what life is, how our own is related to theirs,” our “responsibilities and debts among the other inhabitants...

    • “the necessary angel of earth” Wings of Wallace Stevens
      (pp. 136-140)

      “I have seen cowboys; I have seen prairie dogs; hundreds of wild ducks, Indians in camp with smoke coming through their discolored tent-tops; I have seen mountains swimming in clouds and basking in snow; and cascades, and gulches,” says a marveling Wallace Stevens (1879–1955). Three days pulling past farms, prairies, and mountains on Canadian Pacific Railroad in 1903 took him to British Columbia, the Rockies—fresh from Harvard College and New York Law School and “particularly taken by . . . the rock character of mountains above the timber-line.” This six-week hunting trip stayed with him even to his...

    • “broken/seedhusks” Reviving America with William Carlos Williams
      (pp. 141-148)

      “Things would really grow for him,” Flossie said about her husband of fifty years, William Carlos Williams (1883–1963). He remembered “once when the boys were small taking them in along an old wood road in our boots from Paterson Avenue among the trees to dig up a wild azalea. I found a bush and carried it out, the roots and a good hunk of wet sod resting, in a burlap bag, across my shoulders.”

      Unlike Frost, Williams came to style himself an urban pastoral poet, a local of Rutherford, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. During...

    • “source then a blue as” Williams and the Environmental News
      (pp. 149-161)

      “There is a constant barrier between the reader and his consciousness of immediate contact with the world,” says William Carlos Williams inSpring and All(1923). He’d just helped start a little magazine,Contact, calling for “contact between words and the locality that breeds them, in this case America.” Local, the native environs—which is why Eliot’s defection inThe Waste Land“struck like a sardonic bullet.” Nothing so marks Williams, over five decades, as this urge to cleanse our consciousness.

      so much depends upon

      a red wheel barrow

      glazed with rain water

      beside the white chickens


    • “room for me and a mountain lion” D. H. Lawrence in Taormina and Taos
      (pp. 162-169)

      Hermoso es!(She ’s beautiful!). In New Mexico D. H. Lawrence (1885–1930), meeting two hunters with a mountain lion they’ve killed, gives his sense of her, the “fine rays in the brilliant frost of her face. / Beautiful dead eyes.”

      From his birthplace in the mining and farming terrain of Midlands England, Lawrence ranged the world seeking a place to fuse spiritual with bodily life. His native country gave him that in the novels, but lush Tuscany and torrid Sicily fired his poetry. Meanwhile he took on the New World—Mexico and fervently the Southwest, “the rounded sides of...

    • “not man/Apart” Ocean, Rock, Hawk, and Robinson Jeffers
      (pp. 170-175)

      Not Man Apart. For a 1965 Sierra Club photo book, the environmental activist David Brower took this title from Robinson Jeffers (1887–1962). A mind-cleansing rightness strikes home if we hear those three spare words the way they actually occur in his poem. Praising “Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things,” Jeffers then says: “Love that, not man / Apart from that”—a loaded line break! (plate 11)

      Ansel Adams found Jeffers “a strange presence with his rugged features and relentless glance” when they met in 1926. Later he told Alfred Stieglitz he hoped “to call attention to the...

    • “submerged shafts of the//sun,/split like spun/glass” Marianne Moore’s Fantastic Reverence
      (pp. 176-183)

      “In England,” she said in 1943 when the war’s outcome stood in doubt, “One pays a fine for throwing away a used bus ticket that could have been preserved as waste paper, and the grocer is not expected to furnish a bag with what he sells but to put it into the basket or shopping bag brought by the purchaser.” It’s surprising, this indignation, coming from Marianne Moore (1887–1972), our idiosyncratic poet of tapestry oceans and lapis lazuli seagulls and Brooklyn Dodgers. But there she is railing at “slumbering civic indifference,” decades early. “One of the most eloquent phases...

    • “There, there where those black spruces crowd” To Steepletop and Ragged Island with Edna St. Vincent Millay
      (pp. 184-193)

      A girl of eighteen on the Maine coast is fetching back to early childhood—Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950).

      Beside me are two long, slender white wands from which I have been peeling the bark for ribbons (with primitive implements of sharp teeth and nails). I taste again the sweetness of the smooth round stick in my mouth. I see again the moist, delicate green of the bark’s lining. And into my nostrils I breathe the hot spicy fragrance until my very soul is steeped in it.

      Instinctively she goes into present tense to bring past time and place...

    • “Gale sustained on a slope” Pablo Neruda at Machu Picchu
      (pp. 194-201)

      Pertenezco a un pedazo de pobre tierra austral hacia Araucanía, “I belong to a piece of poor austral earth verging on Araucania,” he writes, giving Chile’s southern provinces their Indian name,

      my doings have been timed from far away, as if that wooded and perpetually rainy land held a secret of mine that I do not understand, that I ignore and must come to know, and that I search for desperately, blindly, examining long rivers, fantastic plantlife, heaps of wood, the seas of the south, plunging myself into botany and the rain without ever reaching that precious spume the waves...

    • “the wild/braid of creation/trembles” Stanley Kunitz—His Nettled Field, His Dune Garden
      (pp. 202-210)

      “Swimming in Lake Chauggogagogmanchauggagogchabunagungamaugg” meant a lot to Stanley Kunitz (1905–2006). “When I was a boy in Massachusetts one of my favorite haunts was Lake Webster.” He’d made “a thrilling discovery” in the public library: “Indians who once lived on the shores of Lake Webster had a word of their own for it,”


      Wonderfully, “this fantastic porridge of syllables” meant something: “I-fish-on-my-side, you-fish-on-your-side, nobody-fishes-in-the-middle.” The boy practiced uttering it. Since “the beginning of the human adventure a word” can pack in “subterranean electric feelings.”

      This thrill started a lifetime of discoveries. Late one September, for instance, Kunitz was...

    • “Bright trout poised in the current” Things Whole and Holy for Kenneth Rexroth
      (pp. 211-215)

      “Tu Fu has been without question the major influence on my own poetry . . . In some ways he is a better poet than either Shakespeare or Homer. At least he is more natural and intimate.” So says Kenneth Rexroth (1905–1982) about the eighth-century T’ang Dynasty poet whose life’s work blended nature, transience, and war. Here is Rexroth voicing Tu Fu, “Brimming Water.”

      Under my feet the moon

      Glides along the river.

      Near midnight, a gusty lantern

      Shines in the heart of night.

      Along the sandbars flocks

      Of white egrets roost,

      Each one clenched like a fist.


    • “I swayed out on the wildest wave alive” Theodore Roethke from Greenhouse to Seascape
      (pp. 216-222)

      “They were to me,” says Theodore Roethke (1908–1963), recalling the greenhouses of his childhood, “both heaven and hell, a kind of tropics created in the savage climate of Michigan.” Roethke’s father and his grandfather, who’d been head forester to the German chancellor Bismarck, had wild timberland outside Saginaw and greenhouses on a twenty-five-acre clearing in the city. These humid glass enclosures for growing flowers on a huge scale became “my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth.”

      “Cuttings,” close and sensuous, dreams of an Eden astir with organic beginnings.

      Sticks-in-a-drowse droop over sugary loam,

      Their intricate...

    • “That they are there!” George Oppen’s Psalm of Attentiveness
      (pp. 223-227)

      “It’s . . . a lyric reaction to the world,” says George Oppen (1908–1984), “a sense of awe, simply to feel that the thing is there and that it’s quite something to see.” Casual as it sounds, this bracing view goes to the core of modern American poetry. William Carlos Williams had reawakened us to “the New World that rises to our windows” every day:

      Now the grass, tomorrow

      the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

      One by one objects are defined—

      It quickens . . .

      And before that, as if out of nowhere, Walt Whitman’s native tongue tapped...

    • “surprised at seeing” Elizabeth Bishop Traveling
      (pp. 228-238)

      The five-year-old daughter heard it, never forgot it, and years later begins this story-memoir with an echo, as if she were gazing at a watercolor, blue skies and church steeple you can reach out and touch.

      Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979), the most beloved of postwar American poets, had a harder start than most. Her father’s death when she was eight months old, in Worcester, Massachusetts, shattered her mother. They went up to live with the mother’s parents in a fishing village on the Bay of Fundy. Elizabeth bonded to the place, but in 1916 her mother broke down and was...

    • “Why is your mouth all green?” Something Alive in May Swenson
      (pp. 239-248)

      “Maybe, somehow, after the New Year we can get together. We’d love to see the Blue-Footed Boobies on your slides, and hear about the Galápagos Islands. What luck to have been there!” The slides belong to Elizabeth Bishop, the “we” is May Swenson (1913–1989) and her partner Rozanne Knudson, the blue-footed boobies are gooselike tropical seabirds living on arid islands off South America’s Pacific coast, with five-foot wingspan and powder-blue webbed feet.

      It’s no surprise these poets were friends, exchanging over 250 letters during thirty years. Enthusiasm for the makings of poetry kept them close, and for vivid flora...


    • “care in such a world” Earth Home to William Stafford
      (pp. 251-258)

      “The earth was my home; I would never feel lost while it held me.” As a Kansas teenager, William Stafford (1914–1993) biked out of town one afternoon and spent a night alone above the Cimarron River. The slow, serene sunset, quail and coyote sounds, silence and “steady stars,” later the sky brightening “yellow, gray, orange, and then the powerful sun,” made for a “strange and fervent” lifelong vision. “The earth was my home; I would never feel lost while it held me.”

      Unlike another American of his generation, Robert Lowell, who dwelled on the eastern seaboard and found his...

    • “The season’s ill” America’s Angst and Robert Lowell’s
      (pp. 259-265)

      “Pity the planet, all joy gone / from this sweet volcanic cone.” It’s summer 1965 on the Maine coast for America’s classic twentieth-century poet Robert Lowell (1917–1977). Invited by Lyndon Johnson to a White House Arts Festival, Lowell publicly declines in anguish at the escalating Vietnam war. “Waking Early Sunday Morning” (fromNear the Ocean), written in the Northeast at that troubled moment, begins just before dawn with a cry to our Northwest rivers.

      O to break loose, like the Chinook

      salmon jumping and falling back,

      nosing up to the impossible

      stone and bone-crushing waterfall—

      raw-jawed, weak-fleshed there, stopped...

    • “that witnessing presence” Life Illumined Around Denise Levertov
      (pp. 266-274)

      “So a poet, although often impelled . . . to write poems of pure celebration, is driven inevitably to lament, to anger, and to expression of dread.” Driven, says Denise Levertov (1923–1997), because “although we humans are a part of nature ourselves, we have become . . . an increasingly destructive element within it, shaking and breaking the ‘great web’—perhaps irremediably.”

      Shortly before she died, Levertov gathered nature poems from her career inThe Life Around Us. “I decided not to group them separately—praise-poems in one clump, laments and fears in another,” but to let poems in...

    • “the tree making us/look again” Shirley Kaufman’s Roots in the Air
      (pp. 275-281)

      “AmericanhyphenIsraeli” seems the way to describe her, says Shirley Kaufman (b. 1923) in a talk called “Roots in the Air.” Born in Seattle to immigrants from eastern European villages that crop up in her poetry, Kaufman lived in San Francisco, had three daughters, and at forty-six published her first book. In 1973 she moved to Jerusalem with her new husband, a South African who’d immigrated during Israel’s war of independence. “The little line that has become a bridge between America and Israel, has begun to sway and swing like the Golden Gate Bridge suspended on cables between San...

    • “that the rock might see” News of the North from John Haines
      (pp. 282-289)

      Al Vero Lettore. With this dedication “To the True Reader,” John Haines (b. 1924) begins his memoir of twenty-five years in the northern wilderness,The Stars, the Snow, the Fire. Ah, but if you haven’t followed a wolverine’s “loping, toed-in track” through Alaskan snow “uphill for two miles one spring morning, until it finally dropped away into another watershed,” can you still be Haines’s true reader? Or haven’t trekked six miles (and back) in a cold wind, chiseled a three-foot-deep hole in pond ice, built a spruce tripod to sink an aspen-baited trap below the ice, then returned days after...

    • “asking for my human breath” Trust in Maxine Kumin
      (pp. 290-293)

      “I am writing in my journal in the blackness of the barn while waiting for a mare to foal.” Is this Tolstoy working up a farm scene forAnna Karenina? “Sawdust bedding is heaped in a bin roughly fifteen by six feet parallel to the last stall on the south side. This week I am sleeping in the bin on the levelled-out pile.” Not a very favorable spot for the creative spirit? “Although her milk-bag is full and hard, night after night she resists dropping her foal. . . . I overhear every rustle, munch and snore.” Perhaps the worthy...

    • “What are you doing out here/this windy” Wind in the Reeds in the Voice of A. R. Ammons
      (pp. 294-300)

      The Really Short Poems of A. R. Ammons,

      by A. R. Ammons (1926–2001), begin,

      A day without rain is like

      a day without sunshine

      A light pause at the line break, so we expect “a life without pain” or some such, veers elsewhere. Days have their way with us, we gather, and any day matters, any weather.

      “Small Song” touches off ecologic revelation.

      The reeds give

      way to the

      wind and give

      the wind away

      While an oak breaks in the wind, says the old parable, reeds bend. They have much to say, like the moves that words can...

    • “between the earth and silence” W. S. Merwin’s Motion of Mind
      (pp. 301-308)

      "His words convey a sense that he is not standing outside the world he is portraying but is an intimately and endlessly concerned part of it, as it in turn is a part of the ceaselessly attentive motion of his own mind.”

      This could speak for John Clare the peasant poet, Thoreau, and many others. Instead it’s W. S. Merwin (b. 1927) in “The Blind Seer of Ambon,” saluting a seventeenth-century German naturalist who came to Ambon, one of the South Pacific Spice Islands, and stayed for fifty years. Rumphius wrote about plants and animals but not with technical possessiveness,...

    • “bear blood” and “Blackberry Eating” Zest of Galway Kinnell
      (pp. 309-317)

      “I know half of my life belongs to the wild darkness,” says Galway Kinnell (b. 1927). Whatever those halves contain—indoor and outdoor, body and spirit, conscious and unconscious—we see them merging in “How Many Nights,” from 1965.

      How many nights

      have I lain in terror,

      O Creator Spirit, Maker of night and day,

      only to walk out

      the next morning over the frozen world

      hearing under the creaking of snow

      faint, peaceful breaths . . .


      bear, earthworm, ant...

      and above me

      a wild crow crying ‘yaw yaw yaw

      from a branch nothing cried from ever in...

    • “Kicking the Leaves” Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon at Eagle Pond Farm
      (pp. 318-326)

      Few coupled American poets, or European either, had such interlaced sympathies as Donald Hall (b. 1928) and Jane Kenyon (1947–1995). Here Kenyon speaking to her husband, who’s fighting liver cancer, asks what marvel beyond poetry can save him. Soon after, she herself came down with leukemia and died fifteen months later.

      no snowdrop or crocus rose no yellow

      no red leaves of maple,

      Hall wrote then,

      no spring no summer no autumn no winter

      no rain no peony thunder no woodthrush . . .

      He called this poem “Without.”

      Three years into their marriage, in 1975, they settled where...

    • “I dared not cast//But silently cast” Ted Hughes Capturing Pike
      (pp. 327-334)

      This notion of “capturing,” from Ted Hughes (1930–1998), begins his fine primerPoetry Is. Many would welcome his changed attitude, such as the nineteenth-century peasant poet John Clare. Gerard Manley Hopkins, saying “I caught this morning” the windhover or kestrel, means a sighting, not a hunter’s catch. Leaving it as they found it, poems like photos also “catch” something.

      “My first six years shaped everything,” Hughes said toward the end of his life. In his rural Yorkshire childhood, some fox cubs he’d tried to keep alive were killed by a farmer. Recalling this years later, “late one snowy night...

    • “the still pond and the egrets beating home” Derek Walcott, First to See Them
      (pp. 335-343)

      Toward the climax of his 1992 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Derek Walcott (b. 1930) fends off any touristic image of his native islands. He means to reclaim their selfhood, their genius, and if sea almond and spice laurel can’t be found in an unabridged dictionary, that too speaks for a special place. You can see Walcott, a fine naturalist painter, visually calling up a landscape he cherishes: “the next view . . . some long beach without a figure,” “the hanging question of some fisherman’s smoke.”

      “I have felt from my boyhood that I had one function and that was...

    • “It looks just like the Cascades” Gary Snyder’s Eye for the Real World
      (pp. 344-354)

      Washington’s North Cascades mountains never faded for Gary Snyder (b. 1930), wherever his paths between nature and poetry took him: South America and the Persian Gulf as a working seaman, San Francisco and the Beat Movement, the Northwest on logging teams, trail crews, fire lookout, Japan for Zen practice and mountain climbing, Reed College and Berkeley studying American Indian anthropology and East Asian languages, California’s Sierra Nevada where he’s lived sustainably since 1970.

      “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout” opens his first book,Riprap, with a keen sense for what the poet now “saw as real.”

      Down valley a smoke haze...

    • “Just imagine” Can Poetry Save the Earth?
      (pp. 355-358)

      “We must go back and find a trail on the ground,” says William Stafford in “Watching the Jet Planes Dive.” Blazing that trail toward environmental sanity is the English peasant John Clare, least known of the Romantics, who told his children, “I usd to drop down under a bush & scribble the fresh thoughts on the crown of my hat as I found nature then.” Our own children will depend on that alertness, that freshness.

      It’s said that kids today suffer from “nature-deficit disorder,” exploring the Web not the woods. But listen to a Seattle preschool’s Sunlight Room, writing to the...

  9. Sources
    (pp. 359-372)
  10. Text Credits
    (pp. 373-377)
  11. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 378-380)
  12. Index
    (pp. 381-396)
  13. Gallery
    (pp. 397-420)