March 15th, 2006

ozarque figure

Poetry; response to your comments...

I've been reading your responses to my question about whether and why poetry is important, and pondering them, and I think -- I think -- that all the "yes" responses can be distilled into five statements.

I may be wrong. I may have misunderstood some of you, or I may have done violence to what you were trying to say, or I may have left out something crucial. (If I've left out something, it's almost certain to be something crucial, unfortunately; that's how the universe of discourse works.) Please don't hesitate to correct me.

Here is what I've been able to gather from your combined comments:

1. Poetry is important as a mnemonic device. That is, it's easier to remember the "Thirty days hath September...." poem than it is to remember a prose list of the months with the number of days for each. [This refers, I believe, to two kinds of poetry in particular: (a) poetry that rhymes and follows a regular rythmic pattern; (b) poetry that uses dense word-patterning -- for example repetition, parallelism, sets of traditional word-sequences and names -- to encode myths and rituals and other information that is handed down from one generation to another to nurture and maintain a culture.]

2. Poetry is important as a mechanism for compressing very large chunks of meaning into very small sequences of language.

3. Poetry is important as a mechanism for conveying meanings that are extremely difficult -- perhaps impossible -- to convey in prose.

4. Poetry is important because it can evoke a sudden and unified perception of an entire experience, as if the reader or listener were actually having that experience. A prose account can do this a little at a time, but not with the immediacy and vividness and emotional power that poetry can.

5. Poetry is important because it uses words to make a beautiful object of art.


I'm very impressed by this list (which I'm sure I haven't stated as well it could be stated). Especially since I deliberately left my question as vague and open-ended as possible in an attempt to avoid accidentally skewing the answers in one direction or another. You already know that I was expecting only a very few answers, and had thought that the majority would be saying "No, it's not important." I was astonished when things turned out so differently. And I'm grateful for this list, which will be extremely helpful to me in writing the paper I mentioned when I asked the question.

But I look at those five statements, and I wonder.

Why -- at least in the United States -- do so few people buy and read books of poetry?

Why is $1.00 a line considered a very good rate of payment for poetry?

Why would most people in the U.S. rather go to a basketball game, or even watch a basketball game on television, than go to a poetry reading or poetry slam?

Why don't the best of our poets have the kind of celebrity and stature that our rock stars have?

What are poets failing to do that would make it possible for at least the top twenty or so to make a decent living from poetry?