by Devon Balwit, Poetry Editor
What is poetry for? Lately, many have weighed in on this topic in the popular press. Why do big events like natural disasters, 9/11, or Trump’s election seem to call it forth? Why do many people hate it? Why do many others continue to produce it? How should one approach it as a reader?
A recent essay in The New Yorker titled “In Defense of Poetry” by Louis Menand examines a number of claims made about poetry’s utility or lack thereof. Of interest is his summation of Ben Lerner’s “The Hatred of Poetry”: “Poems simply cannot do what people want them to do—create timeless moments, or express individual experiences with universal appeal, or create a sense of communal identity, or overturn existing social mores, or articulate ‘a measure of value beyond money.’ All they can do is expose the impossibility of achieving any of these things by writing a poem.”
I disagree that poems “can’t” do these things. They do them all the time. To write a poem is to take a moment—historical or personal—and expand it, first, through the act of writing, and then again through the act of reading. Does the moment become “universal”? That word is perhaps too large unless you mean the space of intersection with an Other and the finding of commonalities there. The commonalities may not even lie in identity or shared life-experience, but in the power of art to produce shared emotions: nostalgia, indignation, empathy, lust, etc. They create a space apart from the world. (Perhaps this is why we shouldn’t be troubled with liking the work of a poet whose politics we disagree with. Inside their work, we can encounter them in a different space, that of our shared language, or of the creative process itself.)
Poems also frequently overturn existing social mores—perhaps not in the sense of fomenting social movements or inspiring legislation, but in that of an individual sharing information that otherwise wouldn’t be shared publicly, or sharing it in language usually deemed socially inappropriate. We see this when poets write about being victimized, about perpetrating crimes, about acts normally performed behind closed doors. By bringing these taboo events and thoughts into the open, they challenge social mores.
Similarly, too, poetry celebrates a value beyond money. Few poets earn money through publishing, teaching, lecturing, websites, or workshops. Thus, the creation of poetry is largely unpaid as is its dissemination. In fact, I’d venture that this is the source of much of the scorn leveled at those who write and read poetry. Those caught up in the production or enjoyment of capital cannot understand dedication to something that doesn’t pay homage to the currency of this realm.
Menand also paraphrases Matthew Zapruder’s essay “Why Poetry?”: “Where people who are puzzled by poetry go wrong, he thinks, is in expecting poems to say something straightforward about life, to be useful. Poems are really about language—ultimately, about the impossibility of fixed meanings.” I want to step out of this grad-school lingo. Many poems, I’d counter, are quite straightforward. They use simple language and situate themselves in recognizable and commonly-lived experiences. Sometimes, even the most successful poems emerge from the artist’s personal experience. (I think of Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones,” about explaining death and evil to a child.) Poems are evidence of the writer’s grappling with a moment. The fact of a poem is like an intimate stain on a sheet. We know sex occurred. We can imagine it. We didn’t live that encounter with the lover, but the facts of it resonate within us. And what of the “impossibility of fixed meaning”? One does find meaning in or through poems. They don’t mean anything or nothing at all. Perhaps “fixed” is the key term as each reader might enter the poem through a different line or phrase, and the same reader may enter it by a different one the next time they read it.
Perhaps those people who are puzzled by poetry are not really puzzled at all, but rather offended. They don’t want to slow down. They don’t want the apparent slightness of a poem compared to a Netflix series, a movie, or a book. They might be affronted by the gossamer lines asking for “weighty” consideration. They may resent having to work for pleasure in their leisure time.
Menand also intrigues when he notes: “One of Lerner’s chief examples of misplaced expectations for poetry is what he calls ‘nostalgia for a poetry that could supposedly reconcile the individual and the social, and so transform millions of individuals into an authentic People.’” We imagine a “back then” in which children routinely memorized and performed poems in school, or when people kept notion books of notable lines or whole poems. We imagine the pool of poems smaller and thus shared and familiar. I wonder if we are romanticizing the past. Then, as now, only a fraction of extant poems are offered for such activities, usually the most accessible, the best-known, those with the most marked rhythm for ease of memorization, those most likely to carry the audience along. The rest, certainly the most daring or experimental, or those written by “margin-dwelling” writers didn’t find themselves “reconciling individuals into a People,” at best perhaps they brought together a group of friends/compatriots around a café table, or as now, rippled outward among a “friend group” on social media.
I take issue with Zapruder’s lines: “We find genuine questions everywhere in poetry because they direct the lines away from certainty and stasis. In the best poems, often the poet does not know the answer.” A poetry critic always runs the risk of elevating personal preferences to principles. For example: “I prefer ambiguity; thus, the greater the degree of ambiguity, the better the poem.” Many poems that I love examine recognizable themes in language that invites the reader in (see, I am doing it too: elevating my preference to an aesthetic ruler). These poems take the reader to what could be called a “conclusion.” The final line “makes sense.” The poet—gasp!—perhaps even knows where they are going and how they wanted to arrive there. This doesn’t render the poem “static.” We know any given wave will advance over the shore and retreat, but never the same way. Its movement isn’t ambiguous and enigmatic, only variable.
Without being churlish, I confess that I like the final two lines of Menand’s essay best: “I understand that the reason people write poems is the reason people write. They have something to say.” This, indeed, sums up the impulse. I see, read, hear, feel something, and it sparks a desire to respond. It opens the door to the room set apart, that strange room of the mind that is bigger than the whole world, that exists outside of time, unbound by it. The saying of the thing created there is pure pleasure, independent of whether it is read, understood, appreciated, or remunerated. The act of transmuting lived experience or thought into language is all-absorbing.
I would like to end by quoting Menand: “You read this piece…maybe it will change your life. If it does, the change will be very, very tiny, but most change comes in increments. Don’t expect too much out of any one thing. For although the world is hard, words matter. Rock beats scissors. It may take a while, but paper beats rock. At least we hope so.” Our brains are restless tools. Poetry, the making and reading of it, gives this tool its perfect exposition. It is the sought-after perpetuum mobile, the inexhaustible process.