Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by John Steen
Dear Editor,

David Orr quotes from Allen Grossman's new book, Descartes' Loneliness, in order to show that American poets, despite a frightening tendency toward navel-gazing and absolutism, still find it necessary to address others in their poems. He claims to choose the book "almost at random," but Grossman in his criticism has spoken repeatedly to the major concerns of Orr's article. Grossman has long claimed (in works such as The Sighted Singer) that poetic address—whose survival Orr registers tentatively, while Grossman takes its preeminence for granted—models the possibilities for relationships that exist not only in literary space, but also in politics: "both policy and art are addressed to the solution of problems vital to the continuity of the social order, and, therefore, to the human world."

But this is not to say that poetry and politics adopt a similar speech (as Orr's opening anecdote reminds us). Rather, poetry distinguishes itself among the other media of discourse because it "situates itself where other instruments of mind find impossibility." For American poetry in particular, Grossman finds the example of Whitman and Lincoln revealing, and his article "The Poetics of Union in Whitman and Lincoln: An Inquiry toward the Relationship of Art and Policy" stands as a response to "The Politics of Poetry" avant la lettre. Even if Grossman concludes that poetry cannot resolve or overcome what he calls its "bitter logic," the varied places from which it speaks allow for a critique of any politics that closes off the possibility of new ways for persons (who hope to instantiate communities) to relate to each other.

Atlanta, Georgia

Originally Published: October 23, 2008

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This prose originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

October 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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