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.