Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by Daniel D'Arezzo
Dear Editor,

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

Originally Published: March 2, 2007

Poetry is looking for thought-provoking responses to work published in the magazine, as well as letters that raise new questions about the state of contemporary poetry. To send us your letter, please fill out all the fields below.

If we choose to use your letter, we will notify you by phone. If you have not heard from us within two weeks of sending your letter, you may assume we will not be using it. All letters may be edited for length and clarity, and may appear online, in print, or both.

Please do NOT send poetry submissions to this account. See Submission Guidelines for further information and policies regarding poetry submissions.


* All fields are required


This prose originally appeared in the March 2007 issue of Poetry magazine

March 2007

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.