How Much Does "Does Poetry Matter" Matter?
July 25, 2014 5:51 PM   Subscribe

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."
posted by whyareyouatriangle (38 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
But what's the alternative? I don't have to justify poetry, because I'm just a guy who loves poetry, not a guy out there saying "I'm a poet, that's what I do." If I were, people would be asking me to justify poetry. Just like people do, in fact, ask me to justify mathematics, which is what I do. What am I supposed to say? "No, I won't try to justify it, that would be tacky?"
posted by escabeche at 6:45 PM on July 25, 2014 [8 favorites]

Nice post! To quote Number 6, "Poetry has a social value." Always loved that line.

Paul Muldoon snuck in some poetry in his piece:

"She and I left after an hour and a half, having had enough of the clunk and clangor."
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 7:06 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hmmm, does poetry matter? That's a good question. So what matters, and what are the requirements of mattering? I think poetry gets a bad rep because it can be fairly highbrow and unapproachable. Or, it can be a puppy. That is precisely the thing.

What I really think is that poetry can be the cutting edge of the expression of a language. It quietly pushes literature. The radical avant garde sibling to the more popular accessible but fictional one. Breaking the ice so the more delicate one can pass through.

In the end the world is a better place for poets, but the world isn't friendly to them. Poetry is an hors d'oeuvre the world consumes flippantly, but the world doesn't realize it is consuming it's very root, and will collapse when it is done.

Hopefully more poets come along to feed the rabid earth.
posted by Eekacat at 7:21 PM on July 25, 2014 [6 favorites]

A good poem - with its sense of lyricism and momentum, while capturing a moment or emotion - is the written equivalent of a photograph with a soundtrack. The written equivalent of the Ken Burns effect, if you will. It's tempting to speak out in disgust or outrage when someone needs a "justification" of poetry - Does poetry matter? Do you matter? - but I've learned it's easier to find a poem that speaks to a person and teaches them how powerful a poem can be. And honestly, I don't care if it's Robert Lowell or Robert Service as long they get it. So I'm not sure how a discussion panel reaches anyone who needs to be reached. It's like talking about how important dirt is in a clean classroom - take 'em out to nature, shove their noses to the dirt, let them see it for themselves instead.
posted by barchan at 7:34 PM on July 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

in which the mostly white and mostly male panelists responded to the essentially rhetorical question

3 of the 7 panelists are white males.
posted by the jam at 7:40 PM on July 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

from Tracy K. Smith:"There are myriad ways of speaking to what it feels like to be alive in the world."

This is the whole point, in my opinion. Poetry volumes like "Love Alone" to me, are as good as any of the sonnets. They are speaking what it feels like to be alive in a very different world.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:41 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

More importantly: how much does "Room for Debate" matter? I can barely recall having seen a single piece in that section, the whole time they've had it, that wasn't sophomoric, shallow, and superficial to an even greater degree than the usual opinion-page fluff. The whole remit of "Debate" seems to be to provide a thin veneer of bourgeois dignity/cultural authority to a list of cocktail-party-able discussion points, not advance any kind of real argument. And the pieces usually talk straight past each other, since they clearly don't have a chance to read each other's work and respond at all — neither is it an actual debate nor does it really provide much room. I can't understand why anyone ever takes it seriously.
posted by RogerB at 7:42 PM on July 25, 2014 [6 favorites]

"Room for Debate" only matters when you're getting paid by the word.
posted by Pudhoho at 7:45 PM on July 25, 2014

I mean, seriously, who takes advice on essential questions of life and learning from 750-word back-page-filler squibs like this? It's like asking the Family Circus about the nature of evil, or posing questions about the future of modern art to the used-car listings. Basically Muldoon, by completely taking the piss, is the only one here (as usual) who seems to have understood the actual nature of the situation.
posted by RogerB at 7:48 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

in which the mostly white and mostly male panelists responded to the essentially rhetorical question

3 of the 7 panelists are white males.

Mostly white and mostly male means that most of the panelists were white and also that most of the panelists were male. It doesn't necessarily mean that most of the panelists were white males.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 7:59 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's like asking the Family Circus about the nature of evil

To be fair, this sounds like a great idea.
posted by escabeche at 8:04 PM on July 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

The best argued defences of poetry won't solve its fundamental problem: barely anyone reads it.
posted by litleozy at 8:17 PM on July 25, 2014

To the people poetry matters to (like me), this question sounds like an insult. I don't think even the NY Times is so socially isolated as to seriously think there are no individual people left in the world to whom poetry matters, so I can only assume they meant for this discussion to be insulting to at least some of their readers.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:17 PM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

But litleozy ain't wrong.
posted by saulgoodman at 8:19 PM on July 25, 2014

To be fair, this sounds like a great idea.

sorry, forgot to link

posted by RogerB at 8:23 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

poetry has never been more relevant, powerful, influential, marketable
posted by philip-random at 8:29 PM on July 25, 2014 [8 favorites]

If good poetry is like a Ken Burns doc then I am sad for the poetry world.
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:47 PM on July 25, 2014

Of course poetry matters. Poetry is also alive in our daily lives and in our speech far more than is normally credited.

I'll come down on the side of complaining about the diversity, or lack thereof, in a panel consisting of 5 men and 2 women.
posted by jokeefe at 9:18 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

"someone will remember us/I say/even in another time"
Sappho, c. 7th Century B.C. (trans. Anne Carson)

The Times is a blip compared to poetry.
posted by sallybrown at 9:18 PM on July 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Grumpybear69, I meant similar to the effect, not what it is. My goodness, nobody would want poetry that is a ken burns doc.
posted by barchan at 9:22 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

in which the mostly white and mostly male panelists responded to the essentially rhetorical question

3 of the 7 panelists are white males.

Mostly white and mostly male means that most of the panelists were white and also that most of the panelists were male. It doesn't necessarily mean that most of the panelists were white males.

Describing the panel as "mostly white and mostly male" is intended to conjure up an image of lots of white men, outnumbering women and minorities. In that context, I think it's worth pointing out that white men are themselves less than 50% of the panel.
posted by John Cohen at 10:05 PM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

posted by John Cohen at 10:08 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Poetry matters to me. That's good enough.
posted by klanawa at 12:22 AM on July 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

Does poetry matter? It will once the loudest voices on the web pitch in!

Esquire: More Than Her Words - Women Poets Over 40 We Still Consider Attractive.
Rolling Stone: Has Hip-Hop Become Too Post Modern?
BuzzFeed: 25 Famous Poets Photographed With The Pets They Love.
Reason: Wallace Stevens - Prescient Precursor to Hip-Hop.
Mother Jones: Rod McKuen - Associate Of Frank Sinatra.
US Weekly: Tracy K Smith - What's In My Bag.
Christian Science Monitor: What's Your Poetry IQ? - Take Our Test Now, Before You Finish This Article!
Todd A. Stearns: The Poetry Taught In Your Children's Schoolrooms Subtly Teaches Your Children Un-American Thoughts.
The New Yorker: David Wagoner Rethinks Being Quiet By A Swamp.
The Atlantic: The Tragedy Of Poetry That Is Often Mistaken For Bad Grammar.
Upworthy: Poetry - What You Read Next Might Astound You!
posted by Pudhoho at 1:47 AM on July 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

Engineer's Corner
posted by Segundus at 4:35 AM on July 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Twitter is poetry. Advertising is poetry. Standup comedy is poetry. Adult swim is poetry. Welcome to Nightvale is poetry. True Detective is poetry. Angel Olsen is poetry. All the best, truly important things are poetry. And so is poetry.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:44 AM on July 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

should the day come that poetry suddenly disappears in the morning, someone, somewhere, will reinvent it by evening.

I know "hip-hop" might sound like a glib, even hackneyed, response to poets speaking about a very specific kind of poetry but: that day has come. Whether it's to celebrate athletic victories, commemorate the dead, exhort soldiers to valor, offer devotion or praise the beloved, express unfulfilled desire, proffer seductions, or blame the former lover for a breakup or even a poetic attack aimed at insulting and shaming a personal enemy, we've got you covered.
posted by Lorin at 7:38 AM on July 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I graduated from college just shy of twenty years ago with a degree in poetry, or more precisely, a B.A. in English in a writing concentration entirely focused on poetry.

After a long shuffling of majors that had me bouncing between astronomy (I was not smart enough), journalism (I was not dogged enough), sociology (I was not statistical enough), apiary science (I was not patient enough), and modern dance, for which my resolute and defiant anti-willowiness proved to be an impediment to employment, I ended up in the English department, and after taking a class with a crankily insightful poet with a florid passion for manual typewriters, I encountered a bit of concentrated wisdom that changed everything.

"Prose is the art of the paragraph," my teacher said, "while poetry is the art of the line."

I'd been aiming on a future as an irascible novelist, and my workshop fodder thus far was arch and formal, entirely stilted and caught up in a sort of gleeful playground adventurousness that reveled in the form and fun of language without ever amounting to more than a fireworks display of what was then a well-curated vocabulary of words and phrasing. I chased after my stories, but tripped too often on the sloppily untied threads of the line underfoot. If I could master the line, would the paragraph follow, then the chapter, then the volume, then the life's work?

Poetry is the art of the line.

So I hove to, and drifted until I ended up in a stream of workshops that I followed through the rest of my seven-year struggle to put myself through college on the income from a two jobs and in the sliver of time left after all that employment. I concentrated on that stream, and on the line, and worked my way through the workshops.

I was booted out of the undergraduate workshops and into the graduate ones, and I had the first sense of real and lasting accomplishment in the process that I'd ever had in school. Suddenly, it seemed, I was in a black gown and mortarboard, Twyla Tharping my way across the commencement stage while my father clicked off frames on his careworn Hasselblad in our shared moment of disbelief that I'd managed to single-handedly attain a goal requiring study and focus and diligence.

"Huh," my father said, putting an arm around my shoulder as the family stepped out into the bright December sun in the parking lot behind the Tawes Theater, "Maybe you're not as much of a flake as we thought, kid."

"Well, it is a poetry degree," I said, and we shared a laugh. He'd built a whole life on no more education than the two semesters he'd spent at Georgia Tech before quitting, and yet his life more or less embodied the art of the line connecting then to now in a gentle waltz with plenty of pauses and flourishes.

I have written very little poetry since.

I've stayed within the social realm of poetry, however, and I've known and worked with, for, and otherwise on behalf of some amazing poets, but I've never been able to tolerate the live reading for long, where everyone . has . that . strange . breathless . loping . cadence . of . overwrought . significance . to . every . single . word, or that urgent poetrySLAM . becauseWE'RESOVERYVERY . . . serious . russsshan'then|STOP|andlurchtotheTHROWDOWN.

I worked in offices, lost in the field of squares of low-lying walls incapable of retaining any noble and inspired animal, but which held us all in perfectly. I worked in museums, in clock towers, in churches, in cars scented by pizza in thermal bags, in high-security government offices surrounded by armed guards.

I did not write or read poetry, but I did stand up and tell tales when I could.

Is this the art of the line?

In time, I became the virtual personal valet to a dying poet genius for a time, an exhausting exercise of murderous restraint and diligence, and I've attended many, many readings as a poet's roadie in which I've had to devote extra meditative strength to the murderous restraint over delicately serious types who'd show up to readings, read their shitty, self-involved little pieces, written in ecstatic haste on what they wave around to demonstrate was a napkin from a coffee shop that was defiantly not Starbucks, then leave immediately afterward, because their bit was the only bit they cared for.

I have witnessed and operated the tape recorder documenting enduring spectacles of great poetry, and I have asked myself, very often, particularly as I was managing the waning finances of a poet who never learned any of life's other practical skills, what is this all for?

For my whole life, I have suffered from that question, and that wicked blade swinging closely overhead, slipping ever closer as the days and years stack up and slide and fold and build more and more mass, was almost enough to scare the life out of a person, or of a book, or a career.

What is this all for?

It is, disturbingly, a very similar question to what one could ask about life, particularly when one is of a kind and an in a class not driven by the old call to reproduction and survival.

What is this all for? Does any of it matter? Why even bother?

Two weekends ago, I put on my most uncomfortable outfit, drove to Baltimore, found an inexplicably great parking space, walked stiffly to the Patterson Theater in my most miserably handsome wingtips, and joined a room full of friends gathered to say our final farewell to one of Baltimore's poets. Her husband spoke, read her poetry, and shared clips from her favorite films, and her family and friends climbed onto the stage to read her work and their own work that celebrated the life she'd led, and it was formal and impromptu and just about what she'd have hoped for and—

"Joe," whispered the friend coordinating the event, "I put you on the list."

"For what?"

"So you can say something."

"What? I don't have anything. I—"

"—Just tell a story, Joe."

I sat there, watching, listening, running ideas through their paces, wondering what the hell I'd say and feeling annoyed that my friend had obliterated my intention to, for once, just sit and observe and be outside it all. I was a poet expatriate amongst the still-faithful, and that carries a weight.

In the end, I climbed up onto the stage, apologized for having nothing prepared, and told a few tales about how my friend used to have dreams about me, then call me at three in the morning to hash out the implications, and how she and her husband would engage you in two simultaneous conversations about completely different subjects like a stereo playing different songs on each speaker, and about her insistence on the importance of the Sheela na gig in ancient Irish churches, and I followed a line I hadn't even considered from its start to its end, until I felt it all catch in my throat.

"Being around her was often a bit like being struck repeatedly by lightning," I said, to a wave of sympathetic laughter, "and that's why I'm still not sure how we can all be here, doing this, without Dyane in our midst. If it's not here now, where can lightning go?"

I stepped off the stage, feeling the old familiar sheepish self-doubt that's the milder counterpart to that resonant omnipresent suspicion that maybe this is all just a waste of time, all this poetry, and all these sort of acrobatic, unproductive words that come to us whenever poets gather, but then, it seemed to me that how quickly that feeling faded in those surroundings, because it was a safe space for such things, and, for those of us with some faith that the art of the line and the moment, the playground of sound and semiotics does matter.

Tomorrow, we will work out how to pay the rent. Today, we play.

The questions will always be. The questioning of the questions, too.

Poetry can be like the tiny islands at the tips of immense underwater mountains, encrusted with florid greenery and wild color, full of birds and song and bristling shaggy creatures picking at the undergrowth, geographically insignificant as the spans of plainer continents go, and yet, they reveal the existence of the great unseen landscapes that lie below the surface.

It matters and does not matter. Whether that, too, matters both does and does not.

It will always be argued. It will always be rejected. It will always be accepted.

Everything can be true, even those things that contradict other things.

This is what makes poetry different than almost anything else we've made, and that is what sustains it, and us.

Does it matter? If we're lucky, and if we pay attention, and if we reflect and let ourselves wonder, we may work out our answer by the end of our story.
posted by sonascope at 7:46 AM on July 26, 2014 [25 favorites]

Teach me to Poem: my Ask Metafilter question trying to reclaim poetry. I'm one of those people who wonders if poetry really matters any more outside of rap music lyrics. Years of "let's analyze the symbolism in this dusty old poem" killed poetry for me. The Ask Metafilter helped.

The main thing I took away is that poetry is often a spoken medium, not a written one. And if you look just a little on Youtube you can find all sorts of amazing recordings of people ready poetry, often the original poet. I don't poem much, but at least I poem a little, and I kind of get it now.
posted by Nelson at 9:04 AM on July 26, 2014

My family was on vacation at Yosemite this month and after someone made a throwaway joke about haiku we all ended up writing haiku throughout the trip. We have poems about bears and stars and trees and younger brothers and I am collecting them all into a book. The kids may never pay attention to poetry again, but for those few days when we all sat down at dinner and whipped out our phones to share the day's creations, poetry mattered.
posted by Biblio at 10:35 AM on July 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

by Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pin rest; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
posted by ersatz at 11:53 AM on July 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Or in the words of Neruda:

Well, now,
if little by little you stop loving me
I shall stop loving you little by little.

If suddenly
you forget me
do not look for me,
for I shall already have forgotten you.

If you think it long and mad,
the wind of banners
that passes through my life,
and you decide
to leave me at the shore
of the heart where I have roots,
that on that day,
at that hour,
I shall lift my arms
and my roots will set off
to seek another land.

if each day,
each hour,
you feel that you are destined for me
with implacable sweetness,
if each day a flower
climbs up to your lips to seek me,
ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated,
in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten,
my love feeds on your love, beloved,
and as long as you live it will be in your arms
without leaving mine.
posted by ersatz at 11:55 AM on July 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Nelson, I added a comment about "Poetic Meter and Poetic Form", by Paul Fussell, to your AskMe post.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:06 PM on July 26, 2014


- Aram Saroyan
posted by DaDaDaDave at 1:28 PM on July 26, 2014

in which the mostly white and mostly male panelists

This is noise and does not contribute to the quality of the post.
posted by meadowlark lime at 1:39 PM on July 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Does it matter? If we're lucky, and if we pay attention, and if we reflect and let ourselves wonder, we may work out our answer by the end of our story.
posted by sonascope at 8:46 AM on July 26 [9 favorites +] [!]

Therein lies the rub.
posted by Eekacat at 4:12 PM on July 26, 2014

in which the mostly white and mostly male panelists

This is noise and does not contribute to the quality of the post.

Except for the part where the first paragraph of the post is taken directly from the first paragraph of the first link.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 1:27 AM on July 28, 2014

(Nelson: I also recommended a few contemporary poets you might consider giving a look in your AskMefi post.)
posted by saulgoodman at 5:11 PM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

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