Poetry Isn't as Useless as a Lot of Poets Say It Is

A recent speech at Yale inadvertently sums up what's wrong with the art form these days: Its gatekeepers believe poetry matters because it's poetry, not because of what it says.
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Rudyard Kipling and Nicki Minaj, poets. (Wikimedia, AP Images)

Poetry is useless.

That's the prevailing sentiment in our culture, as far as I can tell. CEOs and lawyers rule the world. Policemen protect property and keep the peace and provide material for television dramas. Athletes and rock stars and movie stars make tons of money and provide material for gossip columns. But poets? Who cares? "It is difficult to imagine a world without movies, plays, novels and music, but a world without poems doesn't have to be imagined," as Newsweek said way back in 2003, when a large gift to Poetry magazine was supposed to change the face of poetry but, unsurprisingly, didn't. A 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts found that about 14 percent of the people in the U.S. read poetry, which seems generous. To compare poetry to other art/entertainment genres on Google Trends  is to see the obvious. Poetry doesn't move public conversation; its only use, the thinking goes, is to give some handful of people tenure so they can spend their days in the ivory tower endlessly recycling their unentertaining irrelevance.

Oddly, this isn't just the position of outsiders. It often seems to be the position of poets themselves. In a recent speech at the Yale Political Union called "What Use Is Poetry?", for example, acclaimed poet and scholar Meena Alexander makes a kind of virtue out of uselessness. In answering the title question, she declares, "I thought: nothing, there is nothing I can say." She then turns that reaction into a poem, which ends:

Standing apart I looked at her and said –
We have poetry
So we do not die of history. 
I had no idea what I meant.

Poetry, then, is contrasted with history and the world; it's outside cause and effect and even reason. ("I had no idea what I meant.") We look to poetry, Alexander says, for "what is deeply felt and is essentially unsayable." The use of poetry is to value those things that are unpragmatic and unmundane. Poetry is valuable precisely because it's not historical/political/economic—because it isn't part of the world of cause and effect.

Even without Alexander's painful reliance on clichéd phrases like "deeply felt," this is all familiar, of course. The romantics, a la Shelley's "Defence of Poetry," ("A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not") insisted on poetry as the spontaneous lyrical expression of inner truth in contrast to folks like Pope and Swift and John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who were more interested in satire or politics or sheer filthiness. The romantics won, the satire and filthiness lost, and now, generations later, "poetry" presumes to deliver the same lyrical emotion and the same inner truth, although the spontaneity looks a little threadbare.

"There have been moments in our shared human history in particular parts of the world where poets and also singers have been banned," Alexander says.

But why? What is there to fear? Precisely this: the force of the quicksilver self that poetry sets free—desire that can never be bound by laws and legislations. This is the force of the human, the spirit level of our lives. 

Poetry is always already revolutionary, then. What it says hardly matters. Poetry is useful because of its useless essence, not because of its individual meaning.

Of course, this is nonsense. When poets or writers have been persecuted, it's generally not because of some abstract contradiction between tyranny and poetry. It's because the persecuted poets said specific things the tyrants didn't want to hear. Anna Akhmatova faced persecution not because she was a poet, but because her poetry was explicitly anti-Stalinist. In contrast, Pound and Mussolini got along swimmingly. Vitor Jara was murdered because he took a stand with Allende, but the British Empire didn't have a problem with Kipling.  

The point here is that poetry, as poetry, is, in fact, useless. Because poetry, as poetry, is nothing. There is no essential "poetry" that has a meaning and a use absent context, any more than there is an essential "music" that can, or should, lend profundity to the sounds of Miles Davis, Miley Cyrus, and Gonzo eating a rubber tire to "The Flight of the Bumblebee." Keats and Shelley, perhaps, were interested in exploring an inward-turning lyrical alternative to history. But Dr. Seuss was mostly trying to make folks laugh. Langston Hughes wrote to entertain and to teach; he certainly would never have made a sharp break between history and poetry, since so much of his poetry was focused on how history, and particularly America's racial history, is intertwined with the self. And then there's Nicki Minaj with the immortal lines, "All these bitches is my sons. . . . If I had a dick I would pull it out and piss on 'em." Poetry doesn't have to save the world. It can just be a (literal) pissing contest.

When people talk about "poetry" as "poetry" they don't usually think about Dr. Seuss or Nicki Minaj—and not often about Kipling or Langston Hughes either, even though those are probably some of the best-known poets around. Instead, in popular consciousness, poetry is synonymous with Dead Poet's Society inspiration and sententious uplift. That's because folks like Alexander have worked to create a myth of an essential poetry, poetry that is important because of what it is, rather than because of what it says. 

It's long past time, therefore, that we stopped asking "What Use Is Poetry?" and started asking, "What Use Is This Poem?" In some cases, maybe, we'll find uses we didn't know existed. And in many cases, we'll can respond, "none; this poem—not poetry as a whole, but this poem—is useless. Away with it, and let it bother us no more."

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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