Neko Case's Flaming Hamster Wheel of Panic About Publicly Discussing Poetry in This Respected Forum
"About twenty minutes after sending my e-mail of acceptance I paused to triumphantly sharpen my claws on the bookcase when I noticed the blazing, neon writing on the wall. It said: YOU’VE NEVER EVEN PASSED ENGLISH AND EVERYONE WHO READS THIS MAGAZINE WILL KNOW IT."
There's been an ongoing debate here on Harriet and in many other places about the "audience" for poetry. Harriet Monroe herself as an editor and so Poetry itself adopted Walt Whitman's phrase "to have great poets, there must be great audiences" as something of a motto: it even appeared on the back cover of the magazine for a time. (Lest you think this impossibly old hat, I'm heartened by Robert Creeley's citation of that same phrase in an interview for Smartish Pace.)
I suppose, without knowing from personal experience, that rock stars are experts on the subject of having audiences, and so we didn't quite expect Neko Case's anxiety, expressed above, about writing a column for our feature, "The View From Here" in Poetry this month. But she's really put her finger, presumably guitar-calloused, on something when she says, "We all have the right to poetry! How could I still think it's for other people? Smarter people. What's doubly confusing is I don't have the same reservations when poetry is accompanied by music. Perhaps I feel that way because there is music all around us..."
And just as Creeley comments that poets are the "product of a culture, a community, a rhetoric, a political habit, a 'world' felt as common even if it is one in which one lives seemingly alone," which explains why his book, For Love, written out of extreme isolation and loneliness, has become his most popular, Case figures that the best poets "imagine their audience and want to comfort them. They are so good at it they even have the ability to comfort us with scariness. Sadness too. I think that is a powerful magic. They don't just write poetry either; they are playwrights and painters and singers and novelists."
Some are philosophers. In a piece Richard Rorty wrote that also appears in this month's issue of Poetry, much of that sadness and comfort comes across very poignantly. Rorty knew he was dying from pancreatic cancer at the time he was working on the piece. When asked by his son whether the reading or writing of philosophy gave him any comfort, he said, surprisingly... no: "neither the philosophy I had written nor that which I had read seemed to have any particular bearing on my situation." "Hasn't anything you've read been of any use?" his son persisted. "Yes," Rorty reports blurting out, "poetry." He explained:
"I now wish that I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse. This is not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. There are no such truths; there is nothing about death that Swinburne and Landor knew but Epicurus and Heidegger failed to grasp. Rather, it is because I would have lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts — just as I would have if I had made more close friends. Cultures with richer vocabularies are more fully human — farther removed from the beasts — than those with poorer ones; individual men and women are more fully human when their memories are amply stocked with verses."
Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...