Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Reprinted from the Chronicle Review
From the issue dated June 27, 2008
Why Poetry Matters
Poetry doesn't matter to most people. They go about their business as usual, rarely consulting their Shakespeare, Wordsworth, or Frost. One has to wonder if poetry has any place in the 21st century, when music videos and satellite television offer daunting competition for poems, which demand a good deal of attention and considerable analytic skills, as well as some knowledge of the traditions of poetry.
In the 19th century, poets like Scott, Byron, and Longfellow had huge audiences around the world. Their works were best sellers, and they were cultural heroes as well. But readers had few choices in those days. One imagines, perhaps falsely, that people actually liked poetry. It provided them with narratives that entertained and inspired. It gave them words to attach to their feelings. They enjoyed folk ballads, too. In a sense, music and poetry joined hands.
In the 20th century, something went amiss. Poetry became "difficult." That is, poets began to reflect the complexities of modern culture, its fierce disjunctions. The poems of Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens asked a lot of the reader, including a range of cultural references to topics that even in the early 1900s had become little known. To read Pound and Eliot with ease, for instance, one needed some knowledge of Greek and Latin poetry. That kind of learning had been fairly common among educated readers in the past, when the classics were the bedrock of any upper-middle-class education. The same could not be said for most readers in the 20th century — or today, when education has become more democratized and the study of the classics has been relegated to a small number of enthusiasts. The poems of the canonical poets of high modernism require heavy footnotes.
Yet poetry can make a difference in the lives of readers. I've always known that myself, having read and written poems for at least four decades. Every morning I begin the day with a book of poems open at the breakfast table. I read a poem, perhaps two. I think about the poetry. I often make notes in my journal. The reading of the poem informs my day, adds brightness to my step, creates shades of feeling that formerly had been unavailable to me. In many cases, I remember lines, whole passages, that float in my head all day — snatches of song, as it were. I firmly believe my life would be infinitely poorer without poetry, its music, its deep wisdom.
One tends to forget that poetry is wisdom. I was in Morocco recently, and a devout Muslim mentioned to me that the Prophet Muhammad, in his book of sayings, the Hadith, had said as much. But the Koran also teaches, I was told, that poets are dangerous, and that decent people should avoid them. That reminded me of Plato, who wished to ban all poets from his ideal republic because he thought they were liars. Reality, for Plato, was an intense, perfect world of ideas. The material world represents reflections of that ideal, always imperfect. Artistic representations of nature were thus at several removes from the ideal, hence suspicious.
But Plato also had other worries about poets. In the Republic, he complained that they tend to whip up the emotions of readers in unhelpful ways. They stir feelings of "lust and anger and all the other affections, of desire and pain and pleasure." Poetry "feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up," he said, while only the "hymns of the gods and praises of famous men" are worthy of readers. The law and reason are far better.
Although Plato didn't quite sink the art of poetry, he cast suspicion on the craft, and poets since then have rarely been comfortable with their place in society. Even the popular Romantic poets — Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, and others — lived on the edge of the social whirl, not quite respectable. More recently figures like Allen Ginsberg have derided their country. Poets have an unruly streak in them, and have not been the most welcome guests at the table of society.
Teachers and professors have long considered poetry a useful part of the curriculum, and one of the last places where poetry remains a central part of the culture is the classroom. To a degree, poets have been "domesticated" by the academic village, welcomed into its grove. Frost was among the first poets to get a big welcome on the campus, and he taught at Amherst College for much of his life, with stints elsewhere. He spent his last decades crisscrossing the country, appearing at colleges, reading and lecturing to large audiences. He believed firmly in poetry as a means of shaping minds in important ways.
In "Education by Poetry," one of his finest essays, Frost argued that an understanding of how poetry works is essential to the developing intellect. He went so far as to suggest that unless you are at home in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values, "you don't know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you." Those are very large claims.
Poets do make large claims, and they are usually a bit exaggerated. In his "Defense of Poetry," Shelley famously wrote: "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." I prefer the twist on that offered by a later poet, George Oppen, who wrote: "Poets are the legislators of the unacknowledged world."
I don't especially want poets to make laws or rule the world. For the most part, they would perform very badly in those public ways. The world of the poet is largely an interior world of the intellect and the emotions — where we mostly live, in fact. And poetry bolsters that interior realm. In a talk at Princeton University in 1942, when the world was aflame, Stevens reflected on the fact that the 20th century had become "so violent," both physically and spiritually. He succinctly defined poetry as "a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pushing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of poetry, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives."
The pressure of reality is indeed fierce, and yet poetry supplies a kind of counterpressure, pushing back against external forces that would overwhelm and obliterate the individual. Poets give a voice to the world in ways previously unacknowledged. We listen to the still, small voice of poetry when we read a poem, and that voice stands in ferocious contrast to the clamor in the culture at large and, often, to the sound of society's explosions.
I always define poetry for my students as a language adequate to our experience — to our full experience, taking into account the interior valleys, the peaks, the broad plains. It gives voice to tiny thoughts, to what the Scottish poet and scholar Alastair Reid, in a lovely poem, calls "Oddments Inklings Omens Moments." One does not hope for poetry to change the world. Auden noted when he wrote in his elegy for Yeats that "poetry makes nothing happen." That is, it doesn't shift the stock market or persuade dictators to stand down. It doesn't usually send masses into the streets to protest a war or petition for economic justice. It works in quieter ways, shaping the interior space of readers, adding a range of subtlety to their thoughts, complicating the world for them.
Language defines us as human beings. We speak, therefore we exist. We have the miraculous ability to gesture in words, to make statements and requests, to express our feelings, to construct arguments, to draw conclusions. Poetic language matters because it is precise and concrete, and draws us closer to the material world. In Nature, Emerson argues that the sheer physicality of words points us in directions that might be called "spiritual." He puts forward three principles worth considering:
"Words are signs of natural facts."
"Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts."
"Nature is the symbol of the spirit."
Those statements formed a platform of sorts for the Transcendental movement, which studied nature closely for signs of spiritual life. The principles remain worthy of reflection. At some level, words suggest natural facts: "rock," "river," "bird," "cloud." The leap comes in the second statement, which posits a spiritual world. One can, I think, leap beyond conventional notions of spirituality here and acknowledge a deep interior world wherein each of us lives, no matter what our religious persuasion. I think of a line from Gerard Manley Hopkins: "O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed." The mind has those heights and depths, and few have not sensed them, stood in awe of their terrifying majesty. That is the spiritual realm, which one can extend in any direction. Nature becomes, at last, Emerson's "symbol of the spirit," and poetry itself embodies that nature. It is part of it. It mirrors the vast interior world, populates it with images and phrases, provides a basis for the reality of individual lives.
I could not live without poetry, which has helped me to live my existence more concretely, more deeply. It has shaped my thinking. It has enlivened my spirit. It has offered me ways to endure my life (I'm rephrasing Dr. Johnson here), even to enjoy it.
Jay Parini is a novelist, poet, and professor of English at Middlebury College. His latest book, Why Poetry Matters, was published in April by Yale University Press.
http://chronicle.comSection: The Chronicle ReviewVolume 54, Issue 42, Page B16