Poetry News

The New York Times asks, "Does Poetry Matter?"

By Harriet Staff

In response to David Biespiel's essay in this month's Poetry Magazine, Gregory Cowles investigates whether or not poets have a place in civic life:

I had some fun substituting “pipe fitter” for “poet” throughout Biespiel’s essay (“As go America’s pipe fitters, so goes American democracy”), because, really, shouldn’t everyone be more engaged? And I’m not sure I agree that civic participation, no matter how worthwhile it is in itself, will somehow make poets more viable. But I’m struck by the plaintive note that hums just beneath Biespiel’s argument: as much as it’s a rousing call to political action, his essay is also an eloquent statement of the anxiety of irrelevance . . .

And, in further Biespiel news, his essay's comment thread continues to explore the connections between poetry and everyday engagement. This morning, Garrett Hongo weighed in:

Who would listen to anyone called "a poet" today? The name and the category has long been reviled by the American mainstream, surviving only as either sheer mockery or hyperbolic flattery of athletics--both quite detached from not only the contemporary marginal practice, but also the ancient communal and ritual one. It's as though we poets have had to hide or mask that identity and, come to think of it, I do my best to do exactly that. I hate to admit I "teach poetry," as it usually stops conversations cold. Katha Pollitt, as provocative and intelligent a crusader in public discourse as we have, seems to have ceased being a poet precisely when she acceded to being a columnist. There has only been one book of poems since she took that job 20 years ago at THE NATION, then elsewhere. I remember her stating publicly, in fact, on the stage of the 92nd St. Y Poetry Center, that what was wrong with contemporary poetry was "grand public statemtents" such as Czeslaw Milosz makes in "Dedication"--itself a poem of great civic consciousness--in which he asks, "What is a poetry that cannot save nations or a people?" Even our best poet-journalist, expert in civic discourse, seems contemptuous of poems that try to enter it.

Originally Published: May 12th, 2010