I enjoyed the prickly exchange in the January issue on the social function of poetry; an opinionated panel with diverse points of view is the best kind. But the panel also seemed tacitly to agree that the social function poetry once performed in Western civilization no longer obtains. Major Jackson alluded to the djalis and griots of West Africa who are the voices and repositories of tribal wisdom, but such a function is one to which contemporary American poets can only dreamily aspire. The question of whether poetry has a social function is asked because that former function is gone.
Or is it? None of the four poets on the panel mentioned poetry readings as having any social function, when, in fact, they are social functions. Jackson talked about teaching poetry to his students, and surely it is a societal choice to have poems in the curriculum. I tested Stephen Burt's proposition that different poets and poems have different social functions by applying it to the poems in the January issue of Poetry. I couldn't locate a social function in any one of them, so I must agree with Emily Warn that Burt's approach doesn't answer the question.
Daisy Fried, who invokes Keats, would probably agree with Burt that poems with a palpable design on the reader are not great poems; but there is no reason to believe, as it seems she does, that great poems can't also provide solace and teach us about ourselves and others and how things happen, without having a palpable design. Furthermore, there are lesser poems that perform a useful social function by making us laugh or reminding us of some dimly remembered truth.
The distinction between "good" and "bad" poems, which Daisy Fried raised, is really the crux of the matter. There seems to be a fear among Poetry poets that bad poems will drive out the good, but who among us started off writing good poems? Let us have more of them, more doggerel in the Times and haiku on the Web. The more bad poems there are, the more there will also be good ones.
New York, New York