Stop justifying poetry!

This is very unbloggy of me, but I'm reposting a response that I made all of ten days ago to a blog post on another blog. Because one of my plans for this blog was to collect some of these wayward comments, and because I'm too useless in this humidity to write a proper post. Anyway, go read the original and the follow-ups, which make some good points to temper what I write here. This has been slightly edited for recontextualization and clarity and regret.

I have some issues with Guy Davenport's idea that "the purpose of poetry is to teach". Not that it isn't true, but that, in most cases, it isn't helpful.

After all, you could argue that pretty much everything is to "teach". The purpose of breaking up with your boyfriend is to teach him that he is incompatible with your life. The purpose of mainstream television (in the U.S., at least) is to teach you to be a lazy, content, and unparticipating citizen (or, so you could argue).

This conceptualization of poetry's purpose also presents itself as a sort of litmus test, a sine qua non, and a way of judging poetry. "Did I learn something from this poem? No. Thus it must be a bad poem." I'm not sure it works like that, or has to work like that.

Also it puts a terrible strain on poets. Although this might just be a personal preference: When a poem reads as thought the writer had something important to teach me, I am more likely to be, well, turned off. "Why didn't you write a self-help book, if that was your purpose?", that is the sort of response I am likely to have.

But, that might be a personal preference. Your mileage might, and probably does, vary.

I think the idea that the purpose of poetry is to teach is a tempting idea for those of us who enjoy poetry and who enjoy learning. But I think ultimately it falls into a trap: It tries to justify poetry, which I don't think needs to be justified, which I suspect should adamantly not be justified. I can talk about the benefits I've gotten from reading and writing and thinking about poetry, as I'm sure you and many others can, but...

I don't know, this might be going too far, but justifying poetry is a way of incorporating it into a system of costs and rewards -- into, I guess, capitalism -- in a way that I'd rather resist. It's like talking about the benefits of religion, or love, or having a pet -- sure, having a pet might help an elderly person live a longer and happier life, but I suspect that doesn't work as well if one only gets the pet for that purpose, and I also suspect that for most elderly people, they do not keep their pets in order to stave off death! The analysis -- the act of analysis -- just seems to miss the delightfully ineffable point of it all.


  1. a.rawlings said...

    randomly off-topic, but i read your post's title and instantly thought, "controversy! is the justification alignment overused in 21st-century poetry?" first to go: centering. next up: justifying.

    and then i read your post...! (:  

  2. Chris said...

    Ha! Yes. Compare handwritten texts to printed texts to typewritten texts to word processed texts, their use of justifications and even margins, etc., etc.

    Does every undergrad poetry workshop for beginners have the person who wants their work to be in prose paragraphs and have meaningful linebreaks?  


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