John Felstiner and Poetry as Environmental Activism

John Felstiner, 1936-2017
(Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Last February, the world lost John Felstiner, a great man of letters, a vocal defender of the natural world and a friend of Sempervirens Fund. Felstiner, professor emeritus of English who taught at Stanford for nearly 50 years, died Feb. 24 at the age of 80.

Felstiner’s most recent work, Can Poetry Save the Earth?: A Field Guide to Nature Poems, examines the historical role of poetry and environmental activism. From shamanic chants of the Yokuts tribe to the zen verse of Gary Snyder, Felstiner eloquently states his case that poetry is a powerful tool for both environmental awareness and action.

In his preface, Felstiner rhetorically asks how poetry can possibly help when our dire times demand an all-out response of “environmental science and history, government leadership, corporate and consumer moderation, nonprofit activism and local initiatives.”

“Response starts with individuals. It’s individual persons that poems are spoken by and spoken to. One by one, the will to act may rise within us. Because we are what the beauty and force of poems reach toward, we’ve a chance to recognize and lighten our footprint in a world where all of nature matters vitally. When ‘the deer freezes’ and Robert Hass wants that ‘moment after/when she flicks her ears & starts to feed again,’ we too want the deer living its own life undisturbed by mankind.” – John Felstiner, Preface, Can Poetry Save the Earth?

As part of Can Poetry Save the Earth?, Felstiner also founded the Save the Earth Poetry Contest for high school students.

Of course, Felstiner is best known for his translations and analysis of the work of German-speaking Jewish poet Paul Celan. His 1995 book, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, was awarded the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism.

He was also recognized for his translations of famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu, which he wrote after spending a year in Chile teaching North American poetry in the late 1960s.

For more information about the remarkable life of John Felstiner, visit

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