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."

Originally Published: November 2nd, 2007

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...

  1. November 2, 2007
     Henry Gould

    The remarks you quote by Richard Rorty reminded me of this passage, which I came upon by chance last night (while looking for a different tome) in a fine book on Dante by Marc Cogan (The Design in the Wax) :
    "For Dante, poetry possesses a special moral capacity and appropriateness. . . A poet does not merely report the truths of philosophy or theology; a poet embodies these truths in the characters and actions of the poem. In doing so, the poet takes one step beyond philosophy, investing these truths with emotion and passion, insofar as we see the truths literally enacted in the events of the poem. And it is precisely because poetry is the embodiment of action, and is therefore suffused with emotion, that it is so perfectly adapted to moral instruction. The embodiment of poetry provides the emotional impetus that makes it possible not only to understand but also to act upon doctrine." (p. 283)

  2. November 2, 2007
     Simon DeDeo

    I think some of the blame -- not all of it -- for the idea that poetry is "for the smarties" lies with the absence of poetry from the high school curriculum. Poetry is I think encountered in the context of the University, and while I think the academization of the subject has been overstated, it's still true that it gets considered as a kind of "higher art," above the novel.
    Cultures (such as Ireland's and the UK) that have more poetry in the secondary schools don't have this problem. Is there an American answer to Ted Hughes' and Seamus Heaney's Rattle Bag? Perhaps the Poetry Foundation could fund one; I bet if you got Harold Bloom and Marjorie Perloff to put down the knives for a moment they could do something great.
    This remark of Rorty's surprised me: "there is nothing about death that Swinburne and Landor knew but Epicurus and Heidegger failed to grasp." Somehow it seems oblique to a lot of what Rorty wrote. I would have thought he'd come closer to the notion (was it Adorno's?) that today neither philosophy nor poetry can be paraphrased. Something a little Platonic in that line, I suppose. But then Rorty was a bit like Putnam, he did like leading you down the garden path.
    "Great audiences". Mark Wallace and I chatted a bit about this on his blog. One of the best "writerly" pieces of advice from Jorie Graham was the assertion that to be better poets, writers need today to become better readers -- of their own work just as much as the work of others. I think one of the "failure modes" of the contemporary poem is a (mis!)underestimation of the power and intelligence of the reader.

  3. November 2, 2007
     Robert Schwab

    I wonder why Case's comments, "We all have the right to poetry! How could I still think it's for other people?" are a surprise to people who read Poetry magazine and poets who have sucessfully traversed the "academization" of the art.
    I think that "high-art" attitude must be reflected off most poetry today in order to be published, which means reaching an audience at all.
    I can almost hear the scratch on the chalk board when I read Case's statement: "I get the sense they imagine their audience and want to comfort them."
    That does not seem to me to be the instinct of poets I read in Poetry magazine. Unless the audience they imagine is an audience of other poets.
    I think the "slam" poetry movement of the last two decades was one manifestation of the democratization of poetry that Case now assumes is complete, or should be.
    Yet I feel the doors are closing again, and that the main door has never been much opened, but only set ajar for a time. I hope, like Case, that is not true. Certainly, the other artists she lists as fellow poets, indicate there is poetry all around us, much like music.
    That has to be the future of poetry, published or not. I just wish the publishing world would look more seriously in those poets' direction for new art.

  4. November 3, 2007
     Vivek Narayanan

    That Case sure knows how to turn on the charm and act all innocent and vulnerable. She preempts us by making a thick skin of her own ignorance. I like the part you quote about "comfort us with its scariness", that's very true. But it's a sly and devious essay too, taking shots at form, and at difficult poetry, arguing that poetry's primary purpose is to comfort and not to disturb, trying to make like it's poetry that's playing too cool for her when in fact what the essay is clearly trying to show is that too cool, too no-nonsense, for a great deal of poetry. I don't suppose she took out a subscription to the magazine? She wants poetry to walk all the way over to her and not the other way around. Compare this with Rorty's heartbreaking version of a similar alienation, at the end of his life: he wishes he'd made more friends. Well, some poems would walk up to Neko Case, but many wouldn't. She'd have to walk over to some poems if she wanted to know what was in them, she'd have to walk half the way or more. That's just the way it is. It's not that those poems are being haughty; rather it is that they are diffident.
    O why am I going on about stuff everyone in this forum already knows. It's just that I don't think we need be either surprised or excited because a rock star happens to remember a bit of Shakespeare. I mean, good for her. Charlie Parker had Joyce way back when. Mingus had Patchen. Cecil Taylor has Olson. But then that's another kind of music. Or is it. Anyway, the lady doth protest too much, methinks.
    I really really like that quote from the Osbourne Brothers a lot, though. I also happen to like Anna Karenina, a book that takes a bit of sitting down. I like em both, what to do.