Does Poetry Have a Social Function?
"Compared to the writing of poetry, few other human activities take place so widely, at least in America, absent even a tacit consensus as to why we do them, what good they do, what function they serve."
What is the social function of poetry? Well, what is the social function of ER nursing? Of plumbing and carpentry? Whatever you think of the folks who fix your pipes, you know roughly what they get paid to do, and why the people who pay them value their services. An individual poet may think she knows such things about poetry, but put two or more poets (let alone critics) in a room, and their so-called knowledge may reveal itself as clashing opinions or axioms—even though "social," as the antithesis of "individual," implies some ground of agreement, something shared. (One reason we keep seeking a "social function" despite this lack of agreement: those of us who make a living through poetry—by teaching other people how to write more of it, or by writing about it—often feel a bit guilty for getting paid.)
Compared to the writing of poetry, few other human activities take place so widely, at least in America, absent even a tacit consensus as to why we do them, what good they do, what function they serve. When you read a lot of contemporary poetry, you discover that the presumed or stated, implicit or explicit, social function of poetry (if any) varies wildly with the poet. Rae Armantrout's poetry, for example, seeks—at times, it seems to despair of finding—a social function we might identify as the inculcation of skeptical thinking. That's a social function in the sense of "social good," even of "social policy." James Merrill's poetry has a social function in the sense of "social event": it tries to produce—often, in the face of mortality, or dejection, or bodily ills—a sense that the poet has friends who get his jokes, who share his sense of things, who respond in kind. Late Merrill—the Merrill of "Self-Portrait in Tyvek Windbreaker"—wonders whether his poetry might resound beyond that social group. Both poets want to say something about a society, and both poets want to do something we might call "social"—to imagine, and to cause, some sense of relations that extend beyond one-on-one intimacy—but they differ in what they want to do, and in why. To speak usefully about the social function of poetry, we need to decide what—or whose—poetry we intend.
People who talk about poetry's social utility often concentrate on content. They think, perhaps, that poetry Tells the Truth, or Provides Solace. These notions make me queasy, and are treason to poetry. If you're crawling to poems on your hands and knees, as I once heard a famous poet remark—in my view, you're not crawling to poetry. Prozac would probably work better.
Poetry's social function comes not from what it means but from what it is. Its utility is to shake us out of our standard American buy-stuff-and-watch-TV half life. A poem's content matters very little to that utility.
I read the phrase "social function" particularly in terms of politics. Plenty of things need to happen in this country, like impeaching George Bush, nationalizing health care, legalizing same-sex civil union, and bringing the troops home now. Poetry can make none of these happen. Anne Winters's "The Mill-Race," about office workers in lower Manhattan, contains virtuoso description of the urban scene: workers, weather, light, limos of the bosses, buses of the employees. Though its subject matter and politics are both clear and attractive, content has very little to do with why the poem is extraordinary.
Is it a useful poem? I like political poetry; it acknowledges that politics are part of life. Certainly at this historical moment, many of us are hungry for poems that look outward, not just into the self or into what seems like another kind of narcissism, a turning away via the knee-jerk (therefore empty) "avant garde" linguistic gesture. America's crimes may be forcing poets back into the world. It's not as though it's optional. Eventually it becomes political necessity.
But politically-alert poetry is no more intrinsically useful than any other poetry. The only kind of poetry that doesn't have social function is that which tells us how to think about X, Y, or Z, or tells us to buck up, or that the world is a wonderful place. The kind of poetry written to make us feel better, for example, after 9/11, is pro-establishment falsification, for it lets us pull the comforter back over our heads and go on sleeping.
For the record, I never feel guilty getting paid, ever.
The function of poetry is that it does not have any function beyond its own construction and being-in-the-world. For this reason, poetry makes everything (and, yes, nothing) happen, especially in a consumer society prone to assessing and dispensing value to everything from lap dances to teachers' salaries. Whether as a form of witness, as a medium which dignifies individual speech and thought, as a repository of our cumulative experiences, or as a space where we "purify" language, poetry, like all imaginative creations, divines the human enterprise. This is poetry's social value.
I hope this does not sound like an exercise in ambiguities. If so, let me add another: one of poetry's chief aims is to illumine the walls of mystery, the inscrutable, the unsayable. I think poetry ought to be taught not as an engine of meaning but as an opportunity to learn to live in doubt and uncertainty, as a means of claiming indeterminancy. Our species is deeply defined by its great surges of reason, but I think it high time we return to elemental awe and wonder. Such a position is necessary to our communal health.
I try to teach my students the full magnitude of what can happen during the reading of a poem. The readerly self, if the music and strategies of the poem are a success, fades away to assume the speaker's identity, or the poem's psychic position. Once a reader has fully internalized the poem's machinations, she collects a chorus within her and is transformed. This ritual generates empathy and widens our humanity. These might seem like grand dreams, but it is just such a belief in the power of poetry that spurs my pen to action, whether I am getting paid or not.
Here is a guess at Will Shortz's crossword clue for your collective answer to our question: "A six-letter word for an art form with no public use other than the one each artist defines. You can separate its content from its uses, which are to shake people from their consumer stupor and usher them into indeterminate mystery."
Plato need not have stewed about poets, you seem to be saying. They have banished themselves from the republic, having abdicated their role as loud-mouth rousers of weeping and gnashing. They won't discombobulate the young, especially young soldiers, whom Plato warned off poetry lest it remind them of their dirty little fear of death. Now it is the poets who soldier on; they have, after all, paying jobs to perform, not for the republic, but for the realm of the personal which has subsumed it.
Does the social function of poetry vary so wildly that we cannot generalize about it? What can be commonly said about a skeptic who turns for clarity to a Rae Armantrout poem, a plumber who searches on Yahoo for a wedding toast, a harried person who seeks in poetry refuge from a grueling job, or a Guantanamo prisoner who, denied pen and paper, uses pebbles to scratch poems on Styrofoam cups?
I'll hazard an answer. Poetry binds solitudes. It enacts a central human paradox: we exist as singular selves, yet can only know them through our relations. A poem creates a presence that is so physically, emotionally, and intellectually charged that we encounter ourselves in our response to it. The encounter, which occurs in language, preserves and enlarges our solitude and points out our connections. Pyrotechnic poets, such as Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Adrienne Rich, set a charge that reverberates among multitudes, changing the shape of our social relations and, inescapably, our individual and collective consciousness.
"The Mill-Race" by Anne Winters serves as proof text. How can its content not matter? How can one not relate to the drained faces of the women office workers on an evening bus, to their scant hope that, despite their misspent, dwindling hours in the service of Labor, they have preserved a shred of self?
It won't take us
altogether, we say, the mill-race—it won't churn us up
altogether. We'll keep
a glib stretch of leisure water, like our self's self—to
reflect the sky.
But we won't (says the bus rider now to herself).
left over really, from labor. They've taken it all for the
Will this poem end drudgery? No. Does it disclose the pathos of other human beings and the source of their suffering? Yes. Is it this capacity that will help us, better than ammo or dollars, find a way through these harrowing times? Absolutely.
I hope I share Emily Warn's passionate optimism about the scope of our art form, but I either fail to understand, or cannot believe, her argument. Is there some function we should call "social," in some ordinary meaning of that term, which all good poems, and only poems (no non-poems: no sculptures, for example) attain? Emily says yes: "poetry binds solitudes," creating "a presence" in whose contemplation we "encounter ourselves" alongside other readers and writers.
Certainly many poems—one might say all good poems—have this effect. So do many objects and events which are not poems. Would it be nonsensical to say that by building houses with Habitat for Humanity, through the hard work of hammer and nail, on the one hand, and the contemplation of poverty, on the other, I might encounter and come to know both my society and myself? What about reading my great-grandmother's love letters, reading Studs Terkel's oral histories, contemplating Brancusi's "Bird in Flight"? We are more likely to experience great visual art in the presence of others (in museums); we might say such experience connects us more evidently than can the silent reading of verse whose authors we have never met.
Ah, but poetry binds our solitudes, creating this self-encounter which becomes paradoxically social, through language alone. Our current—our late-Romantic—understanding of poetry (by which all poems are really or fundamentally lyric) posits this binding-together through language alone as poetry's chief goal: poetry becomes that way of using language in which that goal (rather than, say, exposition or persuasion) takes center stage.
If that is what Emily means, I accept her claim, with two demurrers. First, it is a historically specific understanding, one which describes many superb poems, but leaves out many—to say the least—wonderfully memorable uses of verse (e.g. Milton's sonnet against the Long Parliament). Second, hers appears to be a sense of "social" by which "social" denotes any experience or quality shared among two or more people, friends or strangers, living or dead. Otherwise a poem could not bind—as many poems do bind—solitudes and make connections among readers who do not live in the same society, nor even in the same century. If we use any more conventional, more restrictive senses for "social"—for example, "having to do with a particular society taken as a whole," or even "having to do with people in large groups"—then there is no social function which all good poems have.
How about a moratorium on using plumbers and other "common" people as mythical readers of poetry? Of course Ms. Hardworking Roto-Rooter reads poetry, at least casually, like anyone who reads at all. I'm only sorry more poets don't know how to fix toilets, myself included. It's easy to talk about some "them" for whom poetry is useful. "Them" seldom includes "us."
Emily Warn seems to argue that content supplies poems' utility. Content matters—poetry is far more than a formal game—but does not supply utility. Quality does. "The Mill-Race" is good and usefulbecause it presents in extraordinary language an aspect of the human condition, not some false solution having to do with feel-good "relat(ing) to drained faces." Emily should reread the very lines she quotes if she thinks this poem is about workers "preserv(ing) a shred of self." The poet is there on the bus, we are there, we are all in the mill-race.
I've never found an explanation for why poetry, apparently alone among the art forms, is asked to do more than be itself. Some people devote their lives to Art Song. They take it quite seriously and expect a small audience, without worrying about whether their obsession is useful or that their audience is small. No one says, "Hey lyric soprano, make me feel better, hey basso profundo, help me understand societal problems."
But poetry's the High Art which is also democratic: inexpensive, portable, reproducible, quickly consumed (except for epic and very difficult poetry), requiring only literacy to participate. So maybe it's good that poetry carries this extra burden, even if it means that the idea of poetry is more necessary to people than individual poems, and that people tend not to pay attention to what's happening on the page. But this doesn't explain why the superfluous demands are often made by educated poetry experts. I doubt most poets, good and bad, political or not, put these demands on their own work. Why should we make them of poetry in general?
I'm also disturbed by Emily's romantic scenario relating to Guantanamo prisoners. I'm not pooh-poohing poetry of witness, quite the opposite. Art of witness is essential. But we should beware of using witness poetry as some cliché of the triumph of the human spirit, providing ourselves with a sop to make us feel better about our government's victims. Poetry's point is not to make safe middle-class readers say, "Poor things! They have it tough. Thank Heavens I vote Democrat!"
Daisy Fried wonders why poetry is called to duty, why it "is asked to do more than be itself," especially during moments of political or national crisis. Hers is the same annoyance expressed by disapproving poets who sniff the air upon hearing a 9/11 elegy or an inaugural poem, or upon learning of a famous poet penning her own line of greeting cards. Why do we, as poets, find this function of poetry so regrettable? Is it because it is too social?
Just ask the poet who reluctantly agrees to contribute to a wedding program, a funeral, or a political rally: the assignment pales in comparison to those poems that arise out of his own mysterious and idiosyncratic need. Such poems come forth from a comparatively minor—yet compulsive—desire. They may enact, for example, an obsessive rhythmic movement in the body onto the page, or explore the significance of a gripping image. But they'll likely never mean as much in the public sphere, where content definitely does matter.
And here's where I disagree with Daisy. If a poem has something to say and says it well, it will be remembered. However, what may give a poem its originality and heft—extraordinary language, searing imagery, high lyricism—may be too arcane for the layperson. Ms. Hardworking Roto-Rooter could care less about your dithyrambs. For her, the poem has value and purpose because it says something meaningful to her.
Most poets must admit that they would cherish being seen by their community of friends and relatives as "functional," the voice who sanctions and gives formal expression to their lives in verse, who serves as the repository of their thoughts and experiences, much like the West African djali or griot. One only wishes more poets took on with greater awareness the higher calling of their art, which has always had embedded within it a vision of the social. Instead, what we have been cultivating, probably since the Romantics, is a vision of the self, either as lonely and overly sentimental, or as beleaguered and fractured, and thus modern. Maya Angelou, Billy Collins, as well as the more politically-minded poets like Adrienne Rich, Sonia Sanchez, and Palestinian-American poet Suheir Hammad all reach beyond mere aestheticism and challenge accepted notions of the above solipsistic poet toiling away at a few columns of free verse. Personally, I find the cynicism and disdain for such poets, even mildly detected here, overly familiar and somewhat nauseating.
After twenty-four hours of traveling, I get home to Seattle bleary-eyed. A headline swims into sight: "Shooting at Jewish Federation Offices Leaves 1 Dead, 5 Wounded." On high alert, I stop to read. Is my Talmud teacher among the wounded or dead? Is anyone else I know? No names have been released. The next morning Israel bombs a Lebanese village and more than fifty people, most of them children, die. Indeed, as Daisy says, "we are all on the bus." Inevitably, someone here, or in a bomb shelter in northern Israel or southern Lebanon, will turn to poetry to read at a funeral service, or to jump-start terrorized lives and pulverized communities.
Why is poetry called to duty during these crises (Major Jackson)? We avidly read poetry written about repression in other countries (Milosz, Ahkmatova, Darwish, Celan), and yet American poets who write of repression (Cornelius Eady's Brutal Imagination, for instance), we call—often with a slight sneer—"political."
Poems such as "The Mill-Race" make us aware of the social conditions that shape our relations; their language helps us dwell in, puzzle out, and feel the conditions and the relations, no matter how terrible, making a change in them more possible. It is this possibility, this hope, that makes poetry as necessary as a paycheck.
"The Mill-Race" ends on the word "salt," ("but it's mostly the miller's curse-gift, forgotten of God yet still grinding, the salt-/mill, that makes sea, salt"). The salt sting is both our empathy for the workers' weariness and the fact of their individual lives ground to salt. Over centuries, the poem also says, these workers have raised cathedrals, invented art. The work, "the curse-gift" of the poet, is to tell the story of a person who has no story other than the story of relations. As Celan wrote, "I am you / if I am."
But do all poems do this? I agree with Stephen Burt that if we prescribe a single ethical purpose to poetry, if we write toward an ideal, then we stymie the possibility that each poem can address a question raised by particular conditions. Yet if we reject tangled relations to insist on the isolated, fragmented self of modern consciousness, then we remain self-absorbed and self-limiting—and certainly incapable of responding to the woman standing with Ahkmatova in the prison line who asked, "Can you describe this?"
A clarification for Daisy Fried: I meant what plumbers do (fix pipes), not who they are or what they read. (I could have used ASL interpreters, or oncologists.) Plumbers (or interpreters or oncologists) do something which we can easily describe, and for which most of us understand the demand. Poetry, like most of the other arts, cannot be defined in general terms that also make clear its utility; plumbing, ASL translation, and oncology can. I continue to maintain that poetry cannot be defined in terms of a social function at all, even if (and here Emily Warn and I agree) most of the great modern poets do project visions of self which imply paradoxical communities of solitude, social in one sense, antisocial in another.
Maybe no one asks mezzo-sopranos to justify their work in terms of purported political utility, but composers have long encountered such demands. Dmitri Shostakovich faced (and sometimes tried to satisfy) the demands of Soviet musical realism. Theodor Adorno's social (and antisocial) theories demanded that composers, and writers, protect that "isolated, fragmented self of modern consciousness" against the false claims of a bad social whole.
I have no desire to insist on such protection, nor to deny that poems have social functions. Rather, my point is that different poems do different things, and good poems (such as "The Mill-Race") do many things at once. If there are universal truths about the communicative functions in poems—truths about all good poems, not just about "The Mill-Race"—they are so universal that they do not count as social, by my lights: they concern communication among just two persons at a time, whether the two meet face-to-face, or whether implicit author and genuine reader live thousands of years apart. One good reason to read poems from distant times and places is that they take us out of our society, showing us how much emotion and thought isn't social (for, about, or addressed to one particular society) at all.
Why not a summation made up of parts?
1 History matters. The claim that the Romantics weren't interested in politics or society (Major Jackson) can be disproved by anyone who reads Shelley, Byron, or Blake. If, before the Romantics, the poet's job was speaking for society, the Romantics moved towards speaking to and for the individual, including the poor and oppressed. They were revolutionaries opposing the system.
2 Words matter. Use is not function. War and Peace makes an excellent paperweight; I've used it that way myself, after reading it. The function of War and Peace is greater than its many uses. So too poetry. Bad poems are often more useful for healing, persuasion, and celebration than good ones. They lack that rich ambiguity which Keats called negative capability, and so fail as poems. Take, for example, bad 9/11 poems, at which I do "sniff the air." There are good 9/11 poems. The degraded Romanticism of the mass of bad ones often amounts to decorative displays of the poet's own sensibility. Such displays may be emotionally or politically useful, but who needs them? They seem to claim authenticity for individual experiences derived from watching TV—and fail to ask the question, why do these people want to kill us? Good 9/11 poems sustain the possibility that America was both victim and guilty. I believe 9/11 solace poetry has given support, however indirectly and unintentionally, to the Bush administration. Solace poetry is to serious poetry as pornography is to serious art. Sex pornography has its uses, even positive ones, but nobody confuses it with serious art about love. The difference between solace porn and sex porn is that solace pornographers seldom seem aware that they're making pornography. Shame on them.
3 Poetry matters. Great poems don't always fit categories of usage: Martial's hilariously filthy invectives, Dickinson's apolitical lyrics, and, despite their stupid fascism, Pound's Cantos, all function as great poetry. Meanwhile, the four of us write poems. We might begin by intending to be merely useful (I never have). But at some point the poem takes over, makes requirements of us instead of vice versa. That's the moment of poetry; poems exist to let readers share in that moment. So our focus on mere use strikes me as odd: is this really all we know about our poems? Why exclude ourselves from our own readership?
4 Enjoyment matters. Poetry is fun! I mean this seriously. In "Lapis Lazuli," Yeats insists on the gaiety of human existence alongside its tragedy. Yes, there is terrible suffering; we are all going to die. And when, on the carved lapis lazuli, a man "asks for mournful melodies;/Accomplished fingers begin to play;/...their eyes,/Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay." The gaiety of great poetry reinforces and deepens our humanity. That's personal—and therefore social. Forget that, and we forget poetry's true function.
Daisy Fried grossly misreads my critique of excessive egoism in Romantic poetry—which an even closer reading of literary history would reveal I mostly cop from Eliot and other anti-Romantic critics. But anyway, let's face it: were Daisy's nineteenth-century poet-revolutionaries alive today, they would be unemployed and writing in obscurity. They would likely be committed to mental institutions for claims of having visions, of the socially relevant and supernatural variety; at least one would be labeled a terrorist or terrorist-sympathizer for speaking against the state and/or professing anti-Christian beliefs; another ostracized for brazenly exercising self-proclaimed, progressive forms of natural love. All, except Keats maybe, would be ignored and cast aside as personae non gratae by the critical, academic, and literary establishments: no Guggenheim for you, Mr. Shelley.
True revolutionary poets are stripped of their laureateships or never reviewed in these pages, for some reason probably having to do with the worn-out argument of lack of aesthetic worth or little merit. Martín Espada, John Yau, and Nikki Finney are just a few of many poets who write poetry that "embraces experience in its full complexity," yet their books never receive a nod in Poetry. Even when the Establishment posthumously highlights a poet such as June Jordan, whose poetics and social vision coalesce into a rich model of the best of art created in a democracy, and whose poetry never suffers from mere narcissism, it does so patronizingly (see Dan Chiasson's review in these pages, November 2005).
What I also read in this exchange is a distasteful cynicism about poetry's ability—its responsibility—to affect lives. If a reading public feels consoled or seeks "a momentary stay against confusion," and poetry provides them this, why deem such works of art failures? Is healing really the domain only of prescriptive drugs?
The worth and importance of all poems is at least partially determined by the context in which they are read and the nature of the audience reading them. I once had a social worker approach me after a reading to thank me for writing a particular poem. "I run a weekly group for abusive men," he said. "I open each session with your poem." Now, I have no idea if this poem will "endure," but it was immensely gratifying that it was "of use" beyond my own desire to write it. I've talked to many other poets who have had similar experiences; it is a sobering moment when one realizes the extent to which art and grace are truly factors in people's lives. Poetry can have an immediate impact in the world. We shouldn't denigrate this capacity, no matter how much we are being paid.
Stephen Burt's logic is airtight. Yet his claim that "poetry cannot be defined in terms of a social function at all" except that it "concerns communication among just two persons" seems cramped and unmoored. A long line of poets and thinkers have made great claims about poetry's social use. Burt seems to be stacking and storing different types of poetry in a container ship, removed and protected from the world as it journeys across the sea. The stacks of poetry can be referenced by poet-engineers, not of the sacred or the social, but of the aesthetic.
In contrast, Emerson claims that "Poets are...liberating gods." Emerson thought poems could change reality because they uncover its hardwiring, then jimmy with it. Poetic insight, he wrote, "does not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees, by sharing the path or circuit of things through forms, and so making them translucent to others." Emerson named the current flowing through things divine—a fire our bodies and poems externalize. "For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem—a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing."
Poets, he's saying, weld new relations and add new forms to the world. (Think, for instance, of D.A. Powell's poems about living and loving with HIV, or A.R. Ammons's poems about inlets, woods, and garbage.) In making our circuitry—our social and biological nerves—translucent, it becomes perceivable and so changeable. Our social reality is thus enlarged to include relations and facts that have been obscured (not yet discovered) or repressed. "Poems are born dark," Celan wrote, because language is "loaded with world."
Do other forms of art and work carry out this same task? Yes, of course, but poetry is especially adept at helping us experience, and so understand, celebrate, mourn, curse, or philosophize about our relations. The fact that most often this poetic "exchange of energy" (Rukeyser) is between two people does not mean it ends there. Poets do not know how their poems will be used in the future. Whitman did not know his work would inform a gay liberation movement. Housman did not know A Shropshire Lad would speak to people suffering the horrors of WWI.
Poetry can leap across and charge the synapse between us and the world, altering both. If we abandon this use, then poets become one more group of wage-laboring specialists, gathered into "ghettos," speaking our own language, and designing complicated objects which serve as prophylactics to protect us from people still naïvely seeking this life-making force.
Steph Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published three collections of poems: Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006), and...
Daisy Fried is the author of Women's Poetry: Poems and Advice (2013), My Brother is Getting Arrested Again (2006) and She Didn’t Mean to Do It (2000), all from University of Pittsburgh Press. She was awarded the Editors' Prize for Feature Article from Poetry magazine in 2009.
Major Jackson's books of poems are Holding Company (2010, Norton) and Hoops (2006, Norton), both finalists for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature-Poetry, and Leaving Saturn (2002, University of Georgia Press), which was awarded the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for a first book of poems and was a finalist for the National Book...
Emily Warn was born in San Francisco and grew up in California and Detroit. She earned degrees from Kalamazoo College and the University of Washington. Her full-length collections of poetry include The Leaf Path (1982), The Novice Insomniac (1996), and Shadow Architect (2008). She has published two chapbooks: The Book...