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Pitching and Defense

In today’s New York Times Book Review, Adam Kirsch and Leslie Jamison address a familiar question: “How has the social role of poetry changed since Shelley?” (This question is usually posed in more alarmist terms: Can Poetry Matter? Or Has It Ever Mattered? Or Might It Matter Next Week? Or What About Three Weeks From Now?) Shelley claimed, in his 1821 essay “A Defense of Poetry,” that poets were “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Kirsch says that Shelley may not have really meant it (“No one in power in 1814 was asking for Shelley’s views on the Congress of Vienna, just as no one in power in 2014 is asking for John Ashbery’s views on climate change”), but that he couldn’t have written the poetry that he did without the “imaginative confidence” that the claim signals. “Poets in our time,” Kirsch concludes, “prefer to imagine themselves not as legislators, but as witnesses—those who look on, powerless to change the world, but sworn at least to tell the truth about it.”

Jamison praises such truth-tellers. “The documentary poet,” she writes, “becomes a witness who might not legislate but might serve (if we hold Shelley to the fullness of his phrase) as one of the unacknowledged voices of influence beneath social change.” She gives two examples of books that come out of this tradition: C. D. Wright’s One Big Self and Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary. I’m happy to be reminded of Wright’s work and to be introduced to Nowak’s—but I find the occasion for the Bookends question mystifying. Haven’t we been asking some version of this question for 2400 years—since Plato, in Book X of the Republic, sent the poets (being “thrice removed from the truth”) packing? And won’t we be asking it for 2400 more?

Since Plato’s attack, we’ve had a number of spirited defenses: from Aristotle, from Horace, from Longinus, from Boccaccio (whose Genealogy of the Gentile Gods contains a bracing chapter heading: “Poets Are Not Liars”). Sidney has weighed in, and Dryden, and Pope, and Wordsworth. Shelley’s defense is probably the most quoted and the most critiqued. (From Eliot: “With Shelley we are struck from the beginning by the number of things poetry is expected to do; from a poet who tells us, in a note on vegetarianism, the ‘the orang-outang perfectly resembles man both in the order and the number of his teeth,’ we shall not know what to expect.” From Auden: “‘The unacknowledged legislators of the world’ describes the secret police, not the poets.”)

It’s a shame, perhaps, that Shelley’s last line gets all the attention; it’s so easy to empirically disprove. Earlier in his essay, Shelley writes that poetry “creates anew the universe, after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration.” That’s the sort of claim that may hold up better. It tracks with Eliot’s notion that poetry “may help to break up the conventional modes of perception and valuation which are perpetually forming, and make people see the world afresh, or some part of it.” It tracks with what I hear my students saying around the workshop table.

In Pot Shots at Poetry, Robert Francis scoffs at the need for a “defense of poetry.” He writes, “I would say it is not our business to defend poetry but the business of poetry to defend us.” Randall Jarrell says something similar in “The Obscurity of the Poet,” arguing that “[p]oetry does not need to be defended, any more than air or food needs to be defended.” Poetry will continue to be written, and most of it will play no social role at all—because poetry, defended or undefended, rarely enters into the greater social conversation. I just finished reading The Best American Poetry 2014, guest-edited by Terrance Hayes. Of the seventy-five poems selected, only one, Patricia Lockwood’s “Rape Joke,” can be said to have performed any sort of measurable social function over the past year. (And that’s one more than in most years, probably.) My workshop read the poem aloud last week; it left us all impossibly unsettled. But some of Hayes’s other selections may be read years from now by people who go to poetry to witness, among other things, the excitement of a mind ricocheting with possibilities.

Here’s the beginning of Robert Francis’s “Catch,” a poem written in 1950 that still zigs, still zags:

Two boys uncoached are tossing a poem together,
Overhand, underhand, backhand, sleight of hand, everyhand,
Teasing with attitudes, latitudes, interludes, altitudes,
High, make him fly off the ground for it, low, make him stoop,
Make him scoop it up, make him as-almost-as possible miss it . . .