Thank you, Best American Poetry and Stacey Harwood, for inviting me to blog and muse here for the week. I’m really excited, and since this first post turned out rather long I want to promise that my intention is to post wildly various things all week. Tomorrow, thanks to a suggestion from Nicky Beer, I’ll be musing about what kind of reality TV show “America’s Next Top Poet” would look like. For now, since this is a conversation that came up this weekend (and I’ve been thinking on it ever since), below are some thoughts on why poets worry about poetry’s relevance. To all who take the time, thanks so much for reading.
So I was just visiting some pals in L.A. And my friend has this book on her shelf. It’s called Can Poetry Matter? I have never read this book, but it seems like a strange title to me, in no small part because its author is, ostensibly, a poet. I imagine most poets would say, Well, yeah. But people seem to want to talk about this – can poetry matter, does poetry matter, how much, and to whom? In fact, the very friend who had this book on her bookshelf wanted to talk about it, so we sat down at her dining room table one afternoon and just talked about it. She is passionate, articulate, and anxious about this question.
She and I didn’t answer the question, and I do not propose to answer it here. I don’t even really propose to examine it here. Rather, I want to examine – briefly – another question: Why is it that poets feel this question has such urgency? Might we even be doing poetry itself a disservice by insisting on revisiting this question over and over again? Might we be convincing ourselves and others that our art, plagued by fears of its own irrelevance, is ultimately doomed? I mean, nobody ever asks, can math matter? Nobody asks, can physics matter? Nobody argues that the current state of cell biology is very worrisome and we should talk about it. We don’t usually ponder the relevance of astrophysics or theoretical math. Or catechism or pizza or mountain biking, for that matter. Well, you might say, we don’t ask that because obviously cell biology and math and physics are useful, because mountain bikes are useful, pizza is delicious, and even religion is useful in devising communities or ethical codes (arguably, pizza is also good for this). What use is poetry?
I perceive this as a very Puritanical anxiety, though the question about the role of the poet in society is as old as Republic X, and perhaps something about Plato’s banishment of the poets from his ideal state finds its way into our current anxieties. Perhaps all poets secretly feel like interlopers in an otherwise-virtuous world of even-keeled and industrious citizens. Perhaps Plato’s repudiation, based though it is on poetry’s emotional efficacy, rhymes with some deep-seated Puritanical anxiety about poetry’s “use”. Writing well after Plato, even Cicero wanted writing to do three things, after all: docere, movere, delectare. To instruct, to move, and to delight. Perhaps we, today, aren’t convinced that poetry can do these things. Or perhaps we believe it should, but that the poetry being written right now simply doesn’t. Surely some of us believe it shouldn’t have to.
Often, we address these anxieties about poetry’s place in the world (despite Plato) with the argument that literature makes us better moral creatures. More thoughtful, more emotionally and ethically literate, more compassionate. And actually, I do think that poetry can make us better people. But I do not believe that it has to make us better people in order to have worth. (How would we ever go about agreeing on what poetry did or didn’t make us better people, anyway? Though actually that might be a more interesting question than this one.) I do not want to live in a world where, to be of value, poetry must first be of use. That some poem might console or might satisfy some intellectual curiosity is perhaps the inevitable consequence of poetry being made out of language, which almost can’t not mean. But it shouldn’t have to do this in order to exist as an art form.
And that is what it is – an art form, like music or theater or painting. So why do we keep asking poetry to justify its place in the world? Sometimes I have thought it is because poetry takes as its medium the common property of language, with precisely the goal of using it uncommonly. The resulting sense of estrangement – or just the notion that communicative or expressive language and poetic language are not exactly the same thing – stresses people out sometimes. But as an explanation for why poetry needs justifying, this feels insufficient to me, especially since it’s more often poets than readers or even would-be readers who return again and again to this question about poetry’s importance. Maybe poetry needs to explain itself because people don’t pay for it, which would make its existence self-explanatory. Why don’t they pay for it? People pay for paintings. A Picasso, for instance. People pay through the nose for one of those. Even a promising young painter might earn hundreds or thousands for a single excellent piece; but nobody earns much for a poem. Why? Could it be because visual artists don’t lurk around darkly and guiltily pondering if their practice has any worth? With all this dire speculation, no wonder poetry’s stock is always down.
I know that’s glib. I know, there’s more to it than that. Poetry is made differently, distributed differently. Maybe this is the problem! Maybe if each time I made a poem I made only one copy of it, I could sell it for an amount that would take into consideration my concept and execution, and the various materials I needed in order to construct the poem (including my college and graduate school education, travel, books, computer, paper, printer, ink, postage, coffee, boxed wine, an entire music library, rent, cat food – okay maybe that’s stretching it – but surely I can at least include in the cost of making a poem the table and chairs where I sit when I write). Why not? Unique broadsides only, engravings, word sculptures, text artifacts and art books, signed, sold to individual collectors, museums, libraries. If you’re thrilled by this, then feel free to join me in the enterprise. If, however, you find yourself a little queasy about the idea of all poetry being made exclusively for wealthy collectors and art institutions, perhaps you will have to concede that poetry’s value is not tied to its economic potential any more than it’s tied to its “use”. Perhaps some of poetry’s value lies precisely in its resistance to capitalism’s agenda relating cost and worth and function. Maybe we need poetry to remind us that we have souls that long for beauty and we have unanswered questions and we have eccentric curiosities and other things that can’t be bought or sold or used or exploited or taken away.
But even if we can agree on these things, there seems to linger a kind of nostalgia, a suggestion that poetry once had a golden age in which it was widely read and commonly loved, and ours is just a sad, belated falling off from that Edenic literary world. But I’m not convinced. For one thing, the English Department is a relatively new phenomenon, and the study of contemporary literature an even newer one. Sure, you had to read poetry at school in 1847, but it was Homer and Horace and Plutarch and Lucretius. If you wanted to read anything contemporary (read: in English), you were on your own with maybe a coterie for conversation about it. It’s not as though the life of a poet was ever lucrative, either. It was not by his poetry that Coleridge kept his little family “in bread and cheese”, as he put it. He worked as a journalist, he acquired a patron who sent him to Germany to study philosophy and was absolutely livid when Coleridge neglected his studies and his family to pen verse. Keats was trained in medicine, Byron and Wordsworth had money. Blake’s letters are a litany of financial complaints. Shakespeare wrote poems, yes, but he purchased his coat of arms with coin earned writing plays. John Donne wrote some good poems, but it was his sermons for which he was given an income. Before them, just think – Sir Philip Sidney, Lady Mary Wroth, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Earl of Surrey, all of them aristocrats. After them, poets like Pound and Eliot wrote long, authoritative tomes that could barely be comprehended let alone enjoyed without at least a proper Oxfordian education. Poetry has, traditionally, been a little bit of an elite pursuit. I’m not suggesting it has to be and I’m certainly not proposing that it should be. But by way of describing another source of our anxiety about the relevance of poetry, I would propose that we are democrats now, contending with a tradition that is not entirely democratic. We are writing with the shadow of the guillotine on our necks.
Not all poetry is elite in its stance or origin, obviously. Americans Whitman and Thoreau went to the heart of the city and the woods, respectively, to escape poetry’s parlor rooms, and Frank O’Hara, the great Personist poet, raps about Lana Turner and Billie Holiday and Coke and writes “Mothers of America! Let your kids go to the movies!”. Not all highbrow, exactly. And I would argue that in making innovations that expanded and democratized the possibilities of the poem in both form and content, women and American writers of color and Postcolonial and Transnational poets have changed and enlarged American poetry culture tremendously. I believe it was Braithwaite who observed, “The hurricane does not roar in pentameter.” A marvelous thing about the current state of American poetry, I think, is that it’s really American poetries. Relatively decentered, various, and constantly changing, American poetry is best characterized, to my optimistic view, by a tremendous number of poets following almost as many different lines of inquiry. I think this makes the current conversation both vigorous and exciting. As the poet and woman I am, I am not very nostalgic for this imagined Golden Age.
But I concede that poetry, in the end, doesn’t get read like fiction does, reviewed like fiction does, paid like fiction does. (And not many fiction writers seem to worry whether fiction can matter.) So perhaps poets ask this question, “does or can poetry matter?” because the simple truth is just that we wish more people bought our books, read our poems, knew our names, liked our work. Who doesn’t want people to read and like their work? Even people who claim that expressive authorial subjectivity is a grotesque form of arrogance give themselves a byline, and so they should. Maybe there’s a kind of stupefaction – we who write poetry maybe think that poetry is pretty rad, and we cannot believe that everybody does not think poetry is cool, cannot believe everybody does not think poets are cool. (As an aside: I think poets are kind of cool.) But maybe we just need to get over it. Maybe we’re acting like the girl who got asked to the dance by the handsome dork but she can’t stop pining after the prom king, who is probably a douche-bag anyway. Because people do read poetry. Maybe not as many as we’d like, and maybe not as carefully. Maybe not always for the reasons we, as poets, would always wish. (I kind of think poetry is taught to schoolkids, when it’s taught, pretty badly.) And people want to write poems. Maybe a little naively, at times, and so what? And maybe a lot of people who read poetry also write poetry, but a lot of people who eat also cook. Why is that bad? I mean, I sure wouldn’t tell anybody that going to an MFA program was going to guarantee them a successful writing career, rather I’d advise her to become a doctor or maybe an architect; but if somebody who loves music wants to move to Nashville and sing country, that’s their business. Far be it for me to pee in anybody’s cornflakes.
But finally, I do feel I can’t really address this question of why we worry whether poetry matters without at some point coming clean about whether I think poetry matters. I cannot propose a sweeping study of who does and doesn’t read poetry and whether there’s any correlation with other markers of success or well-being, and how that may or may not have changed over time, what ought to be done about it, or anything else objectively useful, so I will simply offer this: Personally, and very personally, I believe poetry matters. It mattered to me when my mom put poems up around my bed so I could read myself to sleep at night, slowly memorizing the familiar texts. It mattered to me when Nalani brought a translation of Frederico Garcia Lorca into Mrs. Herald’s eighth grade Social Studies class and read it out loud, and a little explosion happened in my cerebral cortex. It mattered to me when at sixteen my family left California and moved to Virginia, and writing terrible, swoony poems about how nobody would ever understand me kept warm in me a little hope of ever feeling understood. It mattered to me all year last year, after my partner Craig died. Having been both poets, writing poems to him kept me from going entirely crazy in his sudden and absolute absence. It mattered to me when I started grad school, knowing it would be a little dangerous as a diabetic, trying to live without health insurance, making compromises and sacrifices that have had real consequences, because I had this compulsive aspiration to the life of the mind. Craig himself disappeared while researching for a book that he was working on. In this quite direct sense, he lost his life in service of the ideal that poetry can matter. So in our family, this conversation is not merely academic. It is lived every day. It is died for.