Joseph Epstein's comments ("Thank You, No," September, 2004) suggesting that introducing poetry to a wider audience might "vulgarize" it, and that teaching poetry in high schools and elementary schools "is probably a mistake" baffle me. In the first place, it's fun to imagine him discussing any form or meaning of the word "vulgar" with any of the writers of Sherod Santos's magnificent translations from Latin and Greek that have appeared in Poetry recently. What would it mean to "vulgarize" their poetry? Has he forgotten that the essential appeal of even the most formally accomplished poetry is still the ancient one: the primal power of the human voice? Does he think the passion of consciousness is a professional skill, available only to the highly trained, or only the most refined sensibilities? He says poetry is an acquired taste, like caviar. How about like martinis or jalapeños or dark chocolate? And why is there shame for a poet in seeking a larger audience? In wanting to make a living from her work? Can a cobbler eat shoes? A bowl of your barley beer for an excellent poem is a very ancient transaction. Something extra to pay my landlord is a more modern necessity, but follows in an ancient and honorable tradition nonetheless. And what's his beef with prizes? Hasn't the support of patrons always been important to artistic endeavor? Can't we just be glad it's nonprofit foundations now, rather than kings and princes?
I'm with Yusef Komunyakaa (Letters, November, 2004) on the importance of putting poetry back into our schools. Our obligation, like any animal's, is to raise our young to survive in the world, and for human animals that means more than acquiring the skills to secure food and shelter. It means, as Komunyakaa says, "embrac[ing] life over death and destruction." It means opening young minds to unimagined possibilities, teaching the power of words to create, to conjure, tell difficult truths, to lie, to delight. In the results of the annual poetry contest at my own children's public elementary school, I've seen the enormous capacity of children to enjoy language and to recognize the possibility of extraordinary disclosure in patterned speech. Some of the poems are astonishing, but the really important thing is for all of our children to learn to expect entrance into poetry, to see it as territory open to them. Some will find a lifelong pleasure/provocation there; some won't. Far fewer will if poetry is presented to them as a kind of test, a world open only to special initiates, or never presented to them at all.