The Value of Poetry in the Modern World


The only thing that can save the world is the reclaiming of the awareness of the world. That is what poetry does.

– Allen Ginsburg

       I first went camping when I was three months old; my cozy little basket tucked under the tent flap. And so began my education in, and love of all things wild. We lived I n the country, on the banks of the Oyster River on Vancouver Island. Even now, I remember the heat of the sand on distant summer afternoons and the smell of the river – that ecosystem is part of my DNA. I also remember discovering the poetry collections that animated my parents’ bookshelves and reveling in how the portrayal of nature in this art form deepened my connection to it. With this in mind, I want to dedicate this post to an exploration of the value of nature-based poetry in the modern world.

       We live in an age of extinctions, an age when every living system is in decline and the rate of decline is accelerating. Is this our grim legacy? Is this what we bequeath to our children? Or might we change course and forge a way of life defined not by consumption but by community, connection and satisfaction; an increased awareness of, and reverence for the natural world that creates the conditions for life; and a much stronger linkage of economic, social and cultural health with environmental health? I believe poetry can help us choose – and choose wisely. Further, I believe poetry can invite the patient reader to explore herself and the environment on a deeper and more interpersonal level. Consider the extraordinary short poem, “To the Insects”, by W.S. Merwin:


we have been here so short a time

and we pretend that we have invented memory

we have forgotten what it is like to be you

who do not remember us

we remember imagining that what survived us

would be like us

and would remember the world as it appears to us

but it will be your eyes that will fill with light

we kill you again and again

and we turn into you

eating the forests

eating the earth and the water

and dying of them

departing from ourselves

leaving you the morning

in its antiquity

       I am under no illusions; I know too well that the nexus between poetry and the environment is not self-evident to most people. Still, I passionately believe that in our time of environmental crisis, poetry has a unique capacity to restore our attention to our environment in its imperiled state. The writer, John Felstiner, puts it well when he says that the “pleasure of poetry” might tap our consciousness, and our consciousness might tap our conscience, leading us to become better stewards of the environment:

We’ve a chance to recognize and lighten our footprint in a world where all of nature matters vitally.

       Our well of deep knowing, our connection to the land, is not dry. I believe this. We are capable of hearing – and heeding, Wallace Stegner’s call for a land ethic. Poetry can help us get there; it connects us more deeply with the physical landscapes around us, as well as the landscapes of the mind. In particular, poetry can raise our consciousness about the relationship between humans and the natural world. In doing so, it can help refresh and renew our awareness that we do not exist outside of nature, at a remove; we are part of it. Nature is not something happening “out there”; it is not a diverting play that may attract our attention for a moment but is otherwise disconnected from our daily lives and concerns. Too often we forget that we are in the play, truly in it, shaping it, for better or worse.

       Ultimately, our destiny as a species will be shaped by the extent to which we effect a marriage between our head and our heart; between the forces of reason and those of soul. Our head should compel us to be smart; to make prudent decisions that are not irreversible and to improve our knowledge of the world around us. Our heart should compel us to honor the birthplace of our spirit and the children who will follow us. Poetry is a potent compass to help us navigate toward the marriage of which I speak.

Written by Rob Abbott

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