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The Matter of Poetry

April 1, 1996

THIS APRIL, it just so happens, is the first annual National Poetry Month. Initiated by The Academy of American Poets and U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass, we are told that it "will involve poets, booksellers, publishers, librarians, teachers, students, magazines, journals, and other literary organizations, in the creation of the most widespread celebration of poetry in the U.S. ever." So it was that April seemed an ideal time for us to announce this new area of our Web site. After all, it is fitting that The Atlantic Monthly should have a part in a national celebration of poetry, given the magazine's long and distinguished tradition (since 1857) of publishing some of our country's finest verse.

It also seems fitting because not too long ago The Atlantic addressed the issue of the state of American poetry. In May, 1991, the magazine published a major article by the poet and critic Dana Gioia, titled "Can Poetry Matter?", that went on to become the title essay of his 1992 book. The question in the article's title may very well have struck many readers as rhetorical; compared to the pressing political and social issues facing the nation (Gioia's article ran alongside a cover story on race and national politics), how could anyone argue that poetry, of all things, really matters? Just three years earlier Joseph Epstein had published a widely remarked essay titled "Who Killed Poetry?", explicitly stating the reigning assumption among non-poet intellectuals that poetry as a culturally vital art form is dead. And, indeed, Gioia opened his Atlantic essay, seemingly in agreement with Epstein, with this dreary assessment: "Like priests in a town of agnostics, [poets] still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible."

Does poetry matter? Can it in a society like the United States? It was a provocative question in 1991, and given the constant sense of crisis in our fin-de-siècle literary culture, it would seem to be just as provocative on the occasion of National Poetry Month '96. Much ink has been spilled in defense of poetry -- from Sir Philip Sidney to Percy Shelley to Seamus Heaney. But it sometimes seems as though those who care about it most do protest too much. It may be true, as W. H. Auden famously put it, that "poetry makes nothing happen" -- at least within the world of politics and commerce and public affairs -- but it nevertheless is also true that individuals do make things happen, and surely poetry makes something happen within individuals. Why can't the lovers and champions of poetry be satisfied with that formulation? Perhaps, because we know the value of poetry to us as individuals, we want there to be a larger role for poetry in society -- as though such an expansion of poetry's reach within the culture could somehow do the country as a whole some good.

The late Russian emigré poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky -- who, as Auden said of Yeats, "disappeared in the dead of winter" this past January -- was another of poetry's defenders, or perhaps better to say, proponents. In a lecture Brodsky delivered as U.S. Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress in October, 1991, he argued for a vast increase in the distribution of books of poetry:
The latest census that I've seen gives the population of the United States as approximately 250 million. This means that a standard commercial publishing house, printing this or that author's first or second volume, aims at only .001 percent of the entire population. To me, this is absurd....

Poetry must be available to the public in far greater volume than it is. It should be as ubiquitous as the nature that surrounds us.... I would like to suggest that with the low-cost technology currently available, there is now a discernible opportunity to turn this nation into an enlightened democracy. And I think this opportunity should be risen to before literacy is replaced with videocy....

For apart from anything else, American poetry is this country's greatest patrimony. It takes a stranger to see some things clearly. This is one of them, and I am that stranger. The quantity of verse that has been penned on these shores in the last century and a half dwarfs the similar enterprise of any literature and, for that matter, both our jazz and our cinema, rightly adored throughout the world. The same goes, I daresay, for its quality, for this is a poetry informed by the spirit of personal responsibility.... To be sure, American verse has its vices -- too many a parochial visionary, a verbose neurotic. But it is extremely tempering stuff, and sticking with the 1 percent distribution method robs this nation of a natural resource of endurance, not to mention a source of pride.
(From "An Immodest Proposal," in On Grief and Reason; New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995.)
Brodsky maintained, it is worth noting, that the role of poetry in society depends upon the audience, not the poet. He would not have poets be self-conscious national educators or evangelists. "If one can speak of the social function of somebody who is essentially self-employed," he continued in the same lecture, "then the social function of a poet is writing, which he does not by society's appointment but by his own volition. His only duty is to his language, that is, to write well. By writing, especially by writing well, in the language of his society, a poet takes a large step toward it. It is society's job to meet him halfway, that is, to open his book and to read it."

When I first spoke with our poetry editor, Peter Davison, about putting together a special feature on the Web to coincide with National Poetry Month, the idea was to present a symposium of prominent poets and critics, in which they could address the various issues surrounding poetry today and its status within American culture. His response, the wisdom of which I'm coming to appreciate more and more, was that there is already so much talk about poetry; why should we use this medium to add to the distraction? Why not give people actual poetry, and let the poems speak for themselves?

We hope that this new feature of our Web site will at least take a small step toward meeting poets halfway by allowing their poems to speak for themselves, in many cases literally: with the advent of the Web we are able to present poetry in both text and audio formats on the same page, and to reach, potentially, a greatly expanded audience. The significance of this new medium for the publication and distribution of poetry remains to be seen. We can only hope that more and more publishers will seize the opportunity to carve out new spaces in which poetry can breathe.

-- Wen Stephenson


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