Mechanical Dances

Does Poetry Matter?

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A series of short pieces on the Opinion Page of the Times today address the question: Does Poetry Matter? Not surprisingly, the writers, all of them published poets, think that it does. Their defenses of poetry generally take one of two lines. The first is the poetry performs some vital function for our culture and for us individually. David Biepiel explains that “poetry has ritualized human life. It has dramatized and informed us with metaphors and figures of feeling and thought, mysteries and politics, birth and death, and all the occasions we experience between womb and tomb.” William Logan writes: ” People can live without poetry, just as they can live without bread, or water, or air — at least for a time.” The other defense is the poetry can speak to ordinary people. It is not a dying art of the elite. Patrick Rosal writes: “If I say last week I saw 90 high school students, who were mostly strangers to one another, howl and weep and laugh and stomp their feet to — yes — poetry… If I told you, there are children, young adults, and grownups who love poetry like this, would you believe me? No, probably not.” But why would we not believe him? There are perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans who could and do enjoy some forms of poetry, particularly slam and other forms of popular poetic performance. If we include hip-hop. the number rises to tens of millions.

Poetry matters to… those to whom it matters. That is, in the plenitude of our media culture, there is a community that reads or listens to poetry. Indeed, there are a number of overlapping communities who enjoy various forms of what we call poetry today. This is probably not enough for the seven poets writing in the Times, however. Implicitly or explicitly, they want to assign to poetry a universal importance: a role in our culture as a whole. For they still operate under the 19th and 20th century assumption that art, in this case poetry, must be central, even salvational, to us individually and collectively. But there simply is no universally agreed center to our contemporary media culture; there are only overlapping communities of interest. There are people for whom poetry matters, and those for whom it does not. The same can be said about prose fiction, painting, rock music, videogames, association football, and thousands of other cultural practices that were formerly labelled elite or popular. Each of these is central to one community, and for members of that community it may indeed organize and subordinate all the other cultural practices.

In our media culture today, there are centers, but no center.

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