Image: Man Ray: “Poem, Paris, mai (may),” 1924
THIS WEEKEND, The New York Times went all in for poetry. In addition to six — count ’em — articles about poetry in the Review, the Times also included an entire panel in its “Room for Debate” section in which the mostly white and mostly male panelists responded to the essentially rhetorical question “Does Poetry Matter?” with some version of the expected answer: yes.
Some writers got to the conclusion more convincingly or interestingly than others, of course. But for the most part, I finished reading these pieces with the same slightly lonely disappointment I always feel after reading a defense of poetry. As a critic, editor, reader, and occasional writer of poetry, I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I actually feel ambivalent about poetry, and I’m always a little baffled when people start waving a flag for it. In the first place, where did they even find the flag?
Try to patch together the various Times pieces, and you start to wonder if we’re all talking about the same thing. To a large extent, we’re not. William Logan’s insistence that the artform “requires an education of the senses” doesn’t allow for a lot of what Tracy K. Smith includes when she writes, “A poem can examine the vulnerability at the core of human experience in any fashion.” And anyone who has cringed at one of Logan’s patented takedowns, with their low blows in defense of high art, should understand the danger of asking all of these imagined poems to matter in any uniform way. Trying to justify poetry, much like trying to justify a nation, turns it into a cause, and causes have a nasty habit of justifying some really crappy behavior.
David Biespel’s piece isn’t crappy. In fact, much of it is lovely. But he, too, gets a little carried away: "Because poets have the highest faith that every word in a poem has value and implication and suggestion, a poem orients us in both our inner and outer existence.” Maybe I’m not a real poet (I’ve often entertained the possibility), but I have no such faith, high or otherwise. Sometimes, reading an individual poem, I’m able to gather enough conviction to start the generative chain of association that makes it so. I depend on poems to help me generate enough faith to find meaning, however provisionally. Most of the time, it doesn’t work, but I’d still like to be welcome in the church of poetry, even if I usually just stand at the back.
And yes, it does get pretty churchy in there. A little cultish sometimes, too. When Logan writes, “We wouldn’t give people jobs as chemists or nuclear physicists without a decade of training, or make them pilots before they’d spent countless hours in a flight simulator,” I can’t help wondering whether he’s missed the obvious distinction or just become a little over-literal in his profession of the creed: poetry is a matter of life or death. After all, as William Carlos Williams wrote (and as poets love to quote) “men die miserably every day / for lack / or what is found there.” Even Williams, though, didn’t suggest that they literally die for lack of poetry (he was, after all, well acquainted with the actual causes of death).
And yet, as Martín Espada suggests in a quick and convincing take on the young Sam Hamill, people can find salvation at the feet of poetry. In an interview over at Drunken Boat, Gregory Orr offered an especially terrifying version of this conversion experience:
As a poet and person, I come from a place where trauma is a primary experience, so when any theory announces that the world doesn’t mean anything, I’m thinking — I already knew that. I knew that when I killed my younger brother in a hunting accident when I was twelve. I knew that when my mother died overnight when I was fourteen. That’s when I realized that the world doesn’t mean anything. That it’s filled with horror and violence, an arbitrary meaninglessness. So meaninglessness doesn’t have any attraction for me. In fact, it’s the name of the horror. It’s the name of isolation. It’s the name of everything that made life unbearable for me when I was a young person starting at the time of my brother’s death and not changing until I discovered writing poetry in my last year in high school.
In the face of such a testimony, the answer to the Times’ query must be “yes,” but none of this quite redeems the question itself. It’s a bit like asking a bunch of religious figures if religion matters. We know pretty much what we’re in for. At their best, the responses can offer some insight into what it’s like for this person to find value in these places. The only accurate affirmative answer isn’t very interesting: it matters because one poem matters to one person and another matters to another, and it matters more because it’s enlivening to have that kind of thing in common. More likely, an affirmative answer will begin with a set of unexamined assumptions and go from there, unwittingly deciding who’s in and who’s out along the way — which makes the Times’ narrowness in assembling this issue all the more disappointing.
There are some things that matter universally, and it’s not very interesting to list them, either: food, drink, shelter, meaning, justice, pleasure, company, love. Sometimes, we can more easily get to these by imagining that other things matter universally, too. It sometimes makes us less lonely to think that others should love the things we love, and it makes the experience of meaning more sustainable if we can claim some external reality for what we feel (and this helps explain, by the way, why poetry is sometimes overtaken by utopian ideals.) But features like this ask too much and too little, encouraging us to make a fetish out of our love and turn a means into an end. Maybe because poetry is so small in the culture at large, and maybe because it looks so massive nonetheless, we never get tired of making the case for poetry. But I imagine it would be healthier, at least once in a while, to answer, “Have you seen what’s going on in the world? Who cares?” and then, if it helps, if it matters to you, go back to the poem again.
Jonathan Farmer is the Editor in Chief and Poetry Editor of At Length. He is also the poetry critic for the Slate Book Review.