Andrew David King’s thoughtful letter raises two interesting and related questions. The first has to do with personal reference. Is Thomas Sayers Ellis, King wonders, actually obligated to frame his personal experiences “in terms that...some hypothetical public will relate to?” No. A poet can write about whatever he likes for whomever he pleases. But when a poet is talented, as Ellis is, and has the ability to speak broadly, as Ellis does, then it can be disappointing to see him fail to engage the hypothetical public that he himself seems most drawn to. As I try to suggest in my review, however, Skin, Inc. is largely successful—and it is successful precisely because, for the most part, Ellis is writing about what he really cares about, and the public he both reaches for and creates is central to that concern.

King’s second point relates to the poet’s duty to, well, reality. King asks why I fault Eleanor Wilner for failing to understand violence and war when, after all, historians and philosophers—and, of course, scientists—don’t fully understand these phenomena either. The problem here is the word “understand.” Poets aren’t obligated to understand the behaviors they write about if by “understand” we mean “have detailed theories regarding.” But they are obligated to at least attempt to have some sort of relation to those behaviors. It isn’t enough to say—about violence or anorexia or ski mask fetishism—“Yeah, I just don’t get it.” Unless, of course, the point of the poem is the author’s own limitations, about which he shouldn’t seem to be patting himself on the back.

Originally Published: June 1st, 2011

David Orr writes the column “On Poetry” for the New York Times Book Review. He is the author of Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry (HarperCollins, 2011).

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