By Michele Desilva, Library
April, with its celebration of National Poetry Month, Earth Day (April 22, 2010) and Arbor Day (April 30, 2010) is one of my favorite months, in spite of T.S. Eliot’s famous dictum, “April is the cruelest month.” In September, I was browsing the shelves of a bookstore when the title of an otherwise unassuming book jumped out at me: Can Poetry Save the Earth? For some reason, I didn’t pick up the book to look at it, but the question posed by the title has stuck with me and seems to be worthy of some thoughtful consideration.
At a surface level, the question is a little ridiculous. My cynical side wonders if anything can save the earth at this point. My realistic, practical side knows that if anything can save the earth, it’s going to have to be people and it’s going to take considerable effort. But, people need tools of one sort or another to do anything, so poetry might as well be considered for inclusion in our toolbox.
At the collective, societal level, we seem to have placed our bet on science and technology. On the evening news, it’s solar energy, more efficient cars, and pollution-eating bacteria that are hailed as our saviors, not a finely tuned phrase or a well wrought metaphor. However, there is a historical precedent for works of literature – including poetry – deeply influencing our perceptions of both the natural and the manmade elements of the earth. Even before written language, oral cultures used stories to explain natural phenomena and affected how people thought about various seasons and natural occurrences. Closer to our own time, books like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring have been significant in creating change around the way we farm, eat, and treat the earth. In the West, John Muir, Edward Abbey, Gary Snyder, and Terry Tempest Williams are all authors whose works have affected both how we think about and how we treat the earth.
While pointing to nature writers and their products is one way to demonstrate how poetry might save the earth, I think poetry is equally important for the very way in which it transmits information and for the way in which it encourages us to think about the world around us. News articles, for example, give us facts and declarative sentences. Scientific articles, for the most part, give us research and results produced by observation and adherence to a specific method of production – the scientific process. Both of these are wonderful and indispensible in their own right but they are lacking what poetry provides, which is an emotional connection to a subject and the license to explore an issue or phenomena subjectively.
To see this principle in action, look out the window. No matter where you are, you’ll likely see some grass. Now, science tells us that grasses are, “monocotyledonous plants in the family Poaceae…annual plants or are herbaceous perennials that die back to the ground surface at the end of the growing season and then regenerate the next season by shoots developing from underground rhizome or root systems” (Gale Encyclopedia of Science, 2008, p. 1991).
That’s a fine definition. Now, consider grass from a poetic point of view, via an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s, “A child said, What is grass?” Here is Whitman’s answer:
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
taken soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and
They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.
All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and
That’s quite a different “definition” of grasses than we would find in an encyclopedia of science. Whitman creates all of these possibilities of being and meaning for a mundane thing. This is the power of poetry: it can shift the level of attention with which we view the everyday earth. This shift in attention can result in changed actions, with real consequences.
Growing up, I often visited the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, a relatively small but remarkable part of the Nantahala National Forest. It is remarkable because it is an example of cove hardwood forest that has never been logged – a real rarity in the southeastern US.
A stand of trees is a fitting memorial because Kilmer is the author of the much-beloved poem, “Trees”:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree…
In this case, then, we might say that poetry managed to save a bit of the earth – an encouraging example.
Can poetry really save the earth? Not by itself. But neither can science or technology alone, either. It’s a symbiotic relationship and we need to give both kinds of thinking and action equal precedence. If there’s one thing we should have learned about the earth by now, it’s that things are far more interconnected than they sometimes appear on the surface.