Saturday, April 26, 2008

Does poetry matter

The Atlantic recently opened up its archives, so readers can find anything that has been published (there is a fee, but I would consider paying if I found the right article). That's a rich trove, since it has been in existence since the mid-19th century. Andrew Sullivan dug up this gem by Dana Gioia. It's a superb treatise on the problem of why poetry seems to have left the public consciousness. It's the fault of the academy, according to Goia, and I wholeheartedly agree. There are now so many "poets in residence," that there is a glut of material. The problem is not just that glut, but the effect that it has on the poets themselves - they write for each other, they write ABOUT each other, and poetry becomes an ever-more self-contained subculture. I love this description of poetry:

Poetry is the art of using words charged with their utmost meaning.

What I find both tragic and funny about this essay is that I read quite a few paragraphs into it before I realized it was not contemporary. It was published in 1991, but still resonates perfectly. He proposes a few remedies, which I imagine had no impact whatsoever. This is because Goia misunderstands the purpose of the academy these days. The purpose of universities and colleges is allegedly to advance the cause of knowledge, and that is, for the most part, true of the people who work within them. But there is another purpose, and that is to give jobs to people who are brilliant, or at least smart, but otherwise wouldn't have solid employment options. There is, of course, a cost to paying these people to perform largely meaningless services, but it's cheaper than seeing them on the streets. If they are not necessarily productive, at least they do no harm. Our culture suffers for it in the form of too much bad poetry. Personally, I see no alternative.

This post would not be complete without Marianne Moore's famous poem, "Poetry:"

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.

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