In his commentary on “public poetry” in April’s issue, David Orr raises some astute points but does not fully confront notions about whether poetry is beholden to the poet, to an audience, both, or neither.
While critiquing Thomas Sayers Ellis’s use of rejection letters and place-specific references as “unambitious,” Orr leaves unexplained the implications of discussing these elements as poetic blind spots rather than demarcations of the poet’s perspective. His complaints about a hermetic “audience composed almost entirely of poets” are beneficial—to an extent. Is Ellis then obligated to address the experiences he deems significant only in terms that, ostensibly, some hypothetical public will relate to?
Orr’s discussion of Wilner’s book is also problematic for this reason. Predicated on the idea that “violent tendencies” like war can be understood, Orr finds fault with Wilner’s self-proclaimed failure to do so. And yet no support is offered for the myth, whether put forth by poets or historians, of an end-all framework for our species’ violence. I am unsure if I agree with the extension of this logic: that poetry need aspire to certainty or at least theoretical claims in the same way that, say, political theory does. If this is the case, where instead can we perform the work of unraveling our knotted thoughts?
Certainly poetry should not (and cannot, no matter how much it feigns) divorce itself from the politics of a very real world; Ellis and Wilner both speak to social ills. But perhaps not all poems can satiate the needs of the self and Orr’s idealized public at once. We ask that poets speak honestly of their innermost selves—and that they speak to us, for us, about things relevant to our lives. Which one is it?