Letter to the Editor
John Kinsella’s piece on the environment and his heroic defense of the same scared the hell out of me [“Vermin: A Notebook,” December 2009]. “For me, poetry has no point in existing if it’s not to be a prompt or aid to political and ethical change,” says Kinsella, hoisting aloft his terrible, swift sword and striding down Main Street in his 100% sustainable fair-trade hemp boots to confront the sheriff. Every time I hear sloganeering for political action from a poet, I get all a-tremble with basic journalistic questions. How exactly is poetry supposed to accomplish these things? Where is this successfully purpose-driven and action-inducing poem? Can you recite a few lines for me? Who is this poet who changed the world with her words? Perhaps, more importantly, when has poetry ever done these things? In the decades before the Civil War, American versifiers cranked out countless anti-slavery poems. Hard to argue with the rightness of their cause, but does this mean Emily Dickinson was inconsequential because she never wrote an Abolitionist poem? Should Wallace Stevens have spent his late period musing on Auschwitz instead of noodling around the imagination?
Robert Frost once said poetry should be about griefs and not grievances. Mostly what I got from Kinsella’s piece was a whole bunch of grievance and a call for a utilitarian, bent-to-purpose poetry that doesn’t exist and never has, at least not in a way that endures the way great poetry does.