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The Purpose of Poetry
For poet and songwriter Patti Smith, the social awakening came when she heard Neil Young’s Ohio: That song, she writes in Just Kids, “seemed to crystallize the role of the artist as a responsible commentator, as it paid homage to the four young Kent State students who lost their lives in the name of peace” (157). What percentage of poets in the past decade—a time of two wars and tremendous social and political tension—feel the same urge to bear witness, to serve as “responsible commentators”? Flipping through a couple dozen poetry journals at an independent bookstore a few weeks ago, I found only a small percentage of poems about social issues. I don’t think this is the result of mere editorial prerogative. Rather I think there is an assumption that poetry with a social conscience is seen as less artful.
In some ways I think I share that prejudice. Some slam poems, for example, read more like propaganda pamphlets endorsing one issue or another with tables of statistics and facts. And, of course, I think of William Carlos Williams’ lines “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die every day/for lack/of what is found/there.”
But I’m not just talking about journalistic or political poetry here. I believe the personal is also political. I remember a time about 10 years ago when I audited a poetry writing class at the University of Chicago as an “older adult.” (I was 36, but easily the oldest student in the class!). When it was my turn to submit a poem to the workshop, I offered a piece about my two kids fighting over a doughnut in the back seat of our mini-van. I’ll never forget the first comment from one of my classmates: “Your poem is so real. It’s really about something.” He meant the words as a compliment. Even if my poem was not about anything particularly enormous, it was grounded in everyday reality unlike any of the poems my classmates had offered before me. And Smith’s memoir Just Kids is artful, I’d argue, because of its personal observations.
I don’t mean to be making any grand distinctions here. But, speaking crudely, I think we are living in an age of artistic abstraction. The purpose of poetry,” Sir Philip Sidney famously pronounced, “is to instruct and to delight.” The order of those two points seems pointed. Delight, to him, is a secondary concern. While Sidney’s epigram might hold just as powerfully today, I don’t think the order of points would remain the same. In contemporary poetry I believe there has been a turn toward abstraction and a turning away (however slight) from poetry of everyday reality and the poetry of social conscience.