Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by David Radavich
Dear Editor,

I always enjoy reading Brian Phillips's ruminations on poetry and the arts, and his latest commentary was no exception. I'm glad Phillips 
devoted so much attention to the concept of  beauty, which, in our time, has unfortunately devolved in many discussions to the merely pretty.

Yet I cannot agree with Phillips that beauty is the only authoritative concept of aesthetic judgment left standing. He dismisses the idea of authenticity, linking it to "poems that ‘work' or ‘don't work.'" That strikes me as reductive. And so does the response a reader might have to a piece that "truly speaks to me," or recent controversies about whether certain authors actually experienced what they claimed in their memoirs.

Those are, as Phillips points out, subjective and ultimately limiting responses. But authenticity can encompass larger, more objective, culturally agreed-upon experience that helps us evaluate individual texts. In reading a poem, say, about the Iraq war, I don't look only for beauty; I also want a sense of reality that accords with the generally acknowledged "facts on the ground," which may be quite painful, even disgusting. Poetry about the world we live in, with so much venality, violence, and degradation, cannot be judged by the standards of  beauty alone — although some aesthetic pleasure must 
obtain or we will simply avert our eyes.

The artistic challenge of our time, to my mind, enforces a shifting, unreliable balance between the dictates of artistic form and the obligation to convey reality honestly and with integrity. True, many contemporary writers flee from beauty and sentiment as if these were diseases of the nineteenth century we have somehow outgrown. But that sounds like cowardice or fear talking; or perhaps an imaginative inability to create out of the raw violence and predations of our world a new, robustly authentic kind of beauty appropriate for our time.

harleston, Illinois

Originally Published: November 15, 2007

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

November 2007

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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