Why Poetry Matters





Poetry doesn't matter to most people. They go about their business as usual, rarely consulting their Shakespeare, Wordsworth, or Frost. One has to wonder if poetry has any place in the 21st century, when music videos and satellite television offer daunting competition for poems, which demand a good deal of attention and considerable analytic skills, as well as some knowledge of the traditions of poetry.

In the 19th century, poets like Scott, Byron, and Longfellow had huge audiences around the world. Their works were best sellers, and they were cultural heroes as well. But readers had few choices in those days. One imagines, perhaps falsely, that people actually liked poetry. It provided them with narratives that entertained and inspired. It gave them words to attach to their feelings. They enjoyed folk ballads, too. In a sense, music and poetry joined hands.

In the 20th century, something went amiss. Poetry became "difficult." That is, poets began to reflect the complexities of modern culture, its fierce disjunctions. The poems of Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens asked a lot of the reader, including a range of cultural references to topics that even in the early 1900s had become little known. To read Pound and Eliot with ease, for instance, one needed some knowledge of Greek and Latin poetry. That kind of learning had been fairly common among educated readers in the past, when the classics were the bedrock of any upper-middle-class education. The same could not be said for most readers in the 20th century — or today, when education has become more democratized and the study of the classics has been relegated to a small number of enthusiasts. The poems of the canonical poets of high modernism require heavy footnotes.
Yet poetry can make a difference in the lives of readers. I've always known that myself, having read and written poems for at least four decades. Every morning I begin the day with a book of poems open at the breakfast table. I read a poem, perhaps two. I think about the poetry. I often make notes in my journal. The reading of the poem informs my day, adds brightness to my step, creates shades of feeling that formerly had been unavailable to me. In many cases, I remember lines, whole passages, that float in my head all day — snatches of song, as it were. I firmly believe my life would be infinitely poorer without poetry, its music, its deep wisdom....


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