Who Reads Poetry
Since 2005, Poetry has been publishing essays about reading poetry, in a series called “The View from Here.” These short and surprising pieces are not written by poets, editors, or academics, but by people who work outside of “professional poetry”—like the actors Alfred Molina and Lili Taylor; artists Lynda Barry, Hank Willis Thomas, and Ai Weiwei; critics Alex Ross and Roger Ebert; musicians Neko Case, Rhymefest, and Will Oldham; and writers Roxane Gay, Christopher Hitchens, and Pankaj Mishra. But the list goes on to include many others, such as a direct-entry midwife, professional baseball player, U.S. Army three-star lieutenant general, and renowned lawyer. We have collected 50 of these essays in a new anthology, Who Reads Poetry (University of Chicago Press), edited by myself and Poetry editor Don Share, which presents different ways that poetry exists outside of classrooms and reading series.
There are many books that ask the question, “Why poetry?” Our book is about “how.” “In a big black leather chair [that’s] too big for the room,” says Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket). On a soapbox, “hearing voices speaking out for justice over the din of a bustling city,” writes organizer, educator, and curator Mariame Kaba. While reciting Wallace Stevens during his “commute in the company F-350, slouching toward Buffalo loaded with the steel construction paraphernalia that [ironworkers] call ‘ten pounds of shit in a five pound box,’” declares truck driver Josh Warn. We think these testimonials are important to poets and readers alike because they illustrate ways we might get by with a little help from poetry.
One of the last essays the late philosopher Richard Rorty wrote was for “The View from Here,” in which he admits:
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.
It’s cautionary as it is encouraging, and serves as a reminder that poetry is here for us when we need it. You can find the book here. You can also pick one up at a discounted price at the Chicago release party at Poetry Foundation on Wednesday, November 29, featuring Omar Kholeif, Natalie Y. Moore, and Jia Tolentino, with special guest DJ John Corbett (RSVP here). But no matter what, you will find all of the essays, even the ones that aren’t included in the book, in this online collection. You can also listen to Don Share and me discuss the anthology here with Curtis Fox on Poetry Off the Shelf.