This Is Why No One Reads Poetry


The scandal here isn't that Common says and believes stupid and indefensible things -- T. S. Eliot did, too. The scandal is that a presidential administration charged with, among many other things, managing government support for art and culture cannot tell poetry from piffle. And that's the main case against things such as the National Endowment for the Arts: Politics is full of barbarians who ought to be kept well away from our cultural institutions, such as they are.

People here know that I'm quite the admirer of poetry--Robert Hayden, Yusef Komunyakaa, Terrence Hayes, Lucille Clifton and so on. But I don't think anything has done more damage to poetry than the sense that the form, itself, is divine, and that you're an intellectual peon if you don't get it.

That's the implicit framework behind Kevin Williamson's silly observation here. He argues that one should be able to "tell poetry from piffle" as though the two are mutually exclusive, as though bad poetry doesn't exist, in the way that bad novels exist, or bad films exist. 

Williamson compares a random Common quote to an Andrew Marvell's quote to prove--surprise--that Marvell's quote is better. So what? I could do the same thing with the fiction of Edith Wharton and Edgar Allen Poe. Does it then follow that Poe wasn't writing fiction?

I don't really much care whether people consider hip-hop poetry or not. Cuban Linx speaks for itself--with or without the hosannas of literary critics. Still it's always bracing to behold the spectacle of thick-witted tripe boorishly parading through a journal of ideas. 

You couldn't make it out of a barbershop debate with this kind of reasoning. I can't believe they pay people to write this stuff. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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