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The Tyranny of Relevance (and Greatness)
Anwar Oduro-Kwarteng takes on the question of poetry’s relevance in The Independent, making a case that a “vacuous, objective” application of relevance doesn’t hold up when “great poems transcend time.”
The problem emerges however, when the term “relevance” is misused, especially when referring to the arts. In this guise, it takes on an instrumental meaning, the consequence of this being that poetry becomes subject to arbitrary objective standards, which seeks to judge a subjective art form by artificial criteria such as “impact.” And as a result of this, poetry is under pressure to seek relevance on these terms rather than its own. This is a mistake: the relevance of poetry is found in its subjectivity and its ability to connect with individuals who each find their own meaning in the text. As Oscar Wilde rightly noted, “It is the spectator and not life that art really mirrors.”
It’s unfortunate that Oduro-Kwarteng uses only “great” historical examples, because his argument is far more useful in addressing accusations of irrelevance in contemporary poetry—poetry that hasn’t had the benefit of time or canonization to universally establish its importance.