An Author Asks: 'Can Poetry Save The Earth?' In his new book, Stanford professor John Felstiner presents poetry from dozens of English and American writers who have spoken passionately to — and for — the natural world. NPR's challenge to him: Pick the poem that could save the world, if everyone were to read it.

An Author Asks: 'Can Poetry Save The Earth?'

An Author Asks: 'Can Poetry Save The Earth?'

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"If poems touch our full humanness, can they quicken awareness and bolster respect for this ravaged resilient earth we live on?" writes John Felstiner in Can Poetry Save the Earth? Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service hide caption

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Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

In his new book, Can Poetry Save the Earth?, Stanford professor John Felstiner presents poetry from dozens of English and American writers who have spoken passionately to — and for — the natural world.

We issued Felstiner a challenge: Pick just one poem that could save the world, if everyone were to read it. He chose "The Well Rising" — and couldn't help but pick some runners-up; two are featured below.

'The Well Rising'

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.

'Anacostia River'

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Just imagine
Waking up one day,
Looking out your window starting to say...
No bad smells
No smoke
No noise
No trash
No junk
No muddy waters.

Just imagine
No dead birds because of
No dead trees because of
No dead people because of
No place to play because of

Be happy!
Be safe!
And just imagine a kid
Living by the Anacostia River.

-- El'Jay Johnson, age 8

'Hearing Your Words...'

Hearing your words, and not a word among them
Tuned to my liking, on a salty day
When inland woods were pushed by winds that flung them
Hissing to leeward like a ton of spray,
I thought of how off Matinicus the tide
Came pounding in, came running through the Gut,
While from the Rock the warning whistle cried,
And children whimpered, and the doors blew shut;
There in the autumn when the men go forth,
With slapping skirts the island women stand
In gardens stripped and scattered, peering north,
With dahlia tubers dripping from the hand:
The wind of their endurance, driving south,
Flattened your words against your speaking mouth.

Copyright (C) 1931, 1958, by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Norma Millay Ellis. Reprinted with permission of Elizabeth Barnett, The Millay Society.