on Why Poetry Matters, by Jay Parini (Yale University Press)
“I would say it is not our business to defend poetry,” wrote Robert Francis, “but the business of poetry to defend us.” He had been referring to a poet who “defended poetry as he would have defended womanhood on the highway at night … I would say that a poem worth defending needs no defense and a poem needing defense is not worth defending.” I think of Francis’ remarks, quoted here from The Satirical Rogue on Poetry (University of Massachusetts Press, 1968), whenever someone complains about American poetry’s trends, readership, institutionalism, obscurity, or elitism – quacking that typically calls for either a restoration or a revolution of some sort.
Of course, it’s one thing to defend poetry from those who have allegedly distorted or otherwise demeaned or devalued it, and another to clarify its virtues as a creative medium. Poems, like people, are experienced, not digested. (If a poem is memorized, is it internalized? Or just along for the ride?) As with another person, we can’t know a poem from within its own insides which remain mysterious, but through an exchange we can be reminded of what it is. So it’s a tonic when someone like Jay Parini decides to refresh our memory about the role poetry may play in helping us to live our lives.
Why Poetry Matters sounds like a rejoinder to Dana Gioia’s 1992 lamentation “Can Poetry Matter?” but it isn’t. (Gioia’s question could be more completely stated as “Can poetry as it is currently created, administered and marketed by a new professional class of insulated poets mean anything to the general educated reader?”) Our NEA chairman had spoken up to defend poetry, not praise it. Parini’s mind is animated by confidence in poetry’s staying power and its inexhaustible, economical ability to defend us. Furthermore, Why Poetry Matters provides a perspective on poetry that suits both Gioia’s literate reader and the practicing poet. Parini writes about poetry with a common language of understanding and feeling; his prose style gently nudges the poet towards urgent clarity by example, and gives the general reader a chance to believe the entire artform is accessible after all.
Even so, Parini’s first chapter is titled “Defending Poetry.” He begins, “Poets have been on the run since Plato announced in the Republic (fourth century B.C.) that ‘there is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry.’” In response to real or imagined slights, poets have long made claims and apologies for themselves, some quite inflated. Think of these outbursts as pep rallies, ways for poets to rev their engines for the race ahead, which is hardly a competition played versus philosophers. [Global readers: Wikipedia defines a pep rally as “a gathering of people, typically students of high school age, before a sports event. Its purpose is to encourage school spirit and to support members of the team for which the rally is being thrown.”] In any event, Aristotle disagreed with Plato, leaving the philosophers to argue among themselves. Horace put the matter to rest when he suggested, as Parini notes, “that poetry is useful because it can both teach and delight at the same time and therefore has utilitarian value.” He touches on Longinus, Dante, Sydney and Eliot among others to arrive at his first assertion on why poetry matters: “Poetry extends the boundaries of thought by extending the boundaries of expression itself … At its best, poetry is a language adequate to our experience.” In chapter two, making peace and disavowing defense, he then reviews the ideas of philosophers and linguists on language and cognition – Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Rorty, Chomsky – to get at the connection between poetic language and language in general. Of Emerson, one of Parini’s presiding spirits, he writes, “He rightly observes that the evolution of language from concrete to abstract has moral implications: ‘The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language.’” (Do these corruptions occur consecutively, or simultaneously? Are they one and the same?)
“I will argue in these pages that poetry matters, in part, because of voice,” Parini says in his preface. As he notes, voice and personality are notoriously difficult concepts to pin down: “It is probably not fruitful to talk about voice in poetry outside the context of particular poets, even particular poems.” His overall point about poetic voice is that it “offers an antidote to the bludgeoning loud voices of mass culture … thus staking a claim for what used to be called the individual soul.” This section considers singular models – Frost, Stevens, Yeats, and Eliot. Why Poetry Matters accomplishes a great deal through brevity and concision, yet Parini also manages to seed his basic thesis/illustration model with insightful asides. Regarding voice, he writes, “In entrepreneurial cultures, ownership counts. The reader has grown accustomed to locating an individual, to connecting a poem to a poet’s life story. In fact, modern poetry after Wordsworth’s The Prelude tends to be overtly autobiographical, describing the growth of the poet’s mind. And not just any poet’s mind. One begins to recognize the voice of a single author. It becomes almost a brand …” As part of a well-functioning thing called a poem (since in entrepreneurial cultures, things count), voice may become a fluent, bankable commodity, the signature of celebrity. As a poet ages and his/her books pile up, it’s legitimate for the reader to ask if he/she is still responding powerfully to experience through surprising language and form, or settled into a marketable tone. (To reduce wear and tear, complacent poets of reputation could take a cue from Robert Rauschenberg, out-sourcing one’s fossilized style to MFA underlings to crank out branded objects.)
Chapter four deals with metaphor – and poetry matters here because the intensity of its metaphorical energy expands our ability to make new connections and test their limits: “Poetry teaches us how far to go.” Chapter five, “Tradition and Originality,” makes a case for poetry as a force of continuity, a constant return to original sources and basic humanity. Each chapter is a tight, allusive essay, and in the sixth, “Form and Freedom,” Parini covers Dickinson, the Homeric epic, Hopkins, Jonson, Campion, Whitman, Amy Lowell and Imagism, and Williams.
“The question of what right poets have to speak up for anyone at all is complicated,” he writes in “The Politics of Poetry.” “Often they feel a sense of responsibility when it comes to speech and are troubled when it seems insufficient to the realities around them … There is a place where poetry, politics, and morality converge, but it will necessarily be a zone of complexity and considerable nuance.” Although this is a knotty and sometimes contentious topic, Parini seems to have an abiding belief in poetry as an essential gallery of voices addressing injustice, poverty, and violence. Whether discussing Edmund Spenser or Anna Akhmatova, his stance is authoritative even in its generalities. Poetry “asks readers to imagine what has happened and to imagine what might follow from certain actions. Poetry matters because it takes into account the full range of moral considerations, moving against the easy black-and-white formulations that may sound effective in political rhetoric but which cannot, finally, satisfy our deepest needs for a language adequate to the emotional and intellectual range of our experience.”
After a chapter dealing with poetry’s relationship to the natural world (John Elder: “A broad awareness of culture and poetry is useful to a person in the same way that his or her natural responsiveness is enhanced by knowing the basic principles of ecology”), Parini devotes the final section to Eliot’s Four Quartets. “It is not just that poetry matters; certain poems matter,” and Eliot’s poems matter a great deal because they ask “vast and dizzying questions,” not the least of which is “what roles does poetry in particular have to play in helping us to understand these questions?”
In his essay “The Hour of Poetry,” John Berger says, “Poetry can repair no loss, but it defies the space which separates. And it does this by its continual labor of reassembling what has been scattered. Poetry’s impulse to use metaphor, to discover resemblance, is not for the sake of making comparisons (all comparisons as such are hierarchical), nor is it to diminish the particularity of any event; it is to discover those correspondences of which the sum total would be proof of the indivisible totality of existence.” Why Poetry Matters coincides artfully with Berger’s description. If poetry can’t repair loss, Parini suggests it still offers a healing balm, by reassembling living memory, using metaphor to reunite what has been separated, and re-voicing the traditional stream of expression.
[Published April 2008. 206 pp., $24. hardback. From the publisher: “Featuring intriguing pairings of subject and author, each volume in Yale University Press’s Why X Matters series presents a concise argument for the continuing relevance of a person or idea.”]