Reviews — From the September 2008 issue

Congenial Disorder

Why should we look for comfort in poetry?

Discussed in this essay:

Why Poetry Matters, by Jay Parini. Yale University Press. 206 pages. $24.

If you were to write a book called Why Poetry Matters, you would be wise to concede, as Jay Parini does, that “to most people” it doesn’t. “That is, most people don’t write it, don’t read it, and don’t have any idea why anybody would spend valuable time doing such a thing.” Especially if, again like Parini, you have also written poetry, fiction, literary criticism, biography, a textbook called An Invitation to Poetry (1987), and a book of essays on poetry and politics called Some Necessary Angels (1997). You might reasonably ask: Has my invitation been accepted? Have readers acknowledged my necessary angels?

The issue is not the dearth of poets or poems. By Dana Gioia’s reckoning in Can Poetry Matter? (1992), nearly a thousand books of poetry are published in the United States every year. I haven’t even counted the number of magazines dedicated to poetry. The current issue of Parnassus runs to 676 pages of new poems, foreign poems in translation, and essays on poetry. Not to mention poetry groups, readings, tapes, blogs, PennSound and other websites, and the incalculable number of poems written for courses in creative writing and MFA programs. There are more poems out there than anyone could read in a lifetime of doing nothing else. Yet Parini refers to “the still, small voice of poetry” drowned out by MTV, CNN, Fox, and other noises, and “earphones downloading a great deal of garbage into the heads of millions on the subways and byways of the world.” It is a familiar complaint: poems cannot be heard where they should be heard, in the hubbub of the general culture. Despite Robert Pinsky’s best efforts, the practice of poetry is still a subculture; it does not matter in any public sense.

The status of poetry was not an issue, according to my reading, until quite late in the nineteenth century. Matthew Arnold’s “The Study of Poetry” (1880) makes a large claim for poetry, but it leaves one wondering why he needed to make it at all:

The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve…. The strongest part of our religion to-day is its unconscious poetry.

“More and more,” Arnold continues, “mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us”:

Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete; and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.

Arnold gives these assertions an appearance of plausibility by proposing an exalted definition of poetry. In an essay on Wordsworth he writes: “Now poetry is nothing less than the most perfect speech of man, that in which he comes nearest to being able to utter the truth.” In “On Poetry” he concedes that a full explanation for the power of poetry is impossible: “No man, however, can fully draw out the reasons why the human spirit feels itself to attain to a more adequate and satisfying expression in poetry than in any other of its modes of activity.” The poetry he has in mind, providing critical touchstones, instances of the highest achievement, he cites from Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton.

Culture—not religion, philosophy, or science—was Arnold’s supreme value. He used the word to refer to the urbanity of social order, peace among the different classes, the happiness with which a lady and a gentleman could stroll in Hyde Park without fear. Ultimately, however, he described it as arising from one’s commitment to the best that has been thought and said in the world. Arnold recognized that these were aspirations at best, hardly to be found with regularity among the English people. The three social classes in England were the aristocracy, the middle class, and the working class, which he designated, with his usual vivacity, as respectively Barbarians, Philistines, and Populace. But in Culture and Anarchy (1869) he hoped that he could appeal to the better self of each of these classes and establish culture—high culture, that is; he had no plans for mass culture beyond the hope that it would not prevail—on that ground. Poetry would articulate those better selves. No further discipline or system of belief would be required.

But on the last page of “The Study of Poetry,” Arnold looks around and sees a portent not to his liking, the common and evidently growing taste for the mediocre in literature (indeed, Henry James would in 1896 have reason to refer to “trash triumphant”). Arnold speaks of it timidly and ends with a desperate cry of confidence:

We are often told that an era is opening in which we are to see multitudes of a common sort of readers, and masses of a common sort of literature; that such readers do not want and could not relish anything better than such literature, and that to provide it is becoming a vast and profitable industry. Even if good literature entirely lost currency with the world, it would still be abundantly worth while to continue to enjoy it by oneself. But it never will lose currency with the world, in spite of momentary appearances; it never will lose supremacy. Currency and supremacy are insured to it, not indeed by the world’s deliberate and conscious choice, but by something far deeper,—by the instinct of self- preservation in humanity.

It is, by another name, the instinct by which we reach at last for our better selves, if we ever do.

Arnold’s claim that poetry, as the better part of culture, will save us from “anarchy,” as he calls it, has had remarkably enduring power. It is substantially Parini’s claim in Why Poetry Matters that with poetry to inspire us we can live satisfactory lives together without the divisive requirement of religion:

The language of poetry can, I believe, save us. It can ground us in spiritual and moral realities, offering the consolations of philosophy, teaching us how to speak about our lives, and how—indeed—to live them.

Parini is reciting Arnold, as well as I. A. Richards, who made this Arnoldian assertion in Science and Poetry (1926):

The most dangerous of the sciences is only now beginning to come into action. I am thinking less of Psychoanalysis or of Behaviourism than of the whole subject which includes them. It is very probable that the Hindenburg Line to which the defence of our traditions retired as a result of the onslaughts of the last century will be blown up in the near future. If this should happen a mental chaos such as man has never experienced may be expected. We shall then be thrown back, as Matthew Arnold foresaw, upon poetry. Poetry is capable of saving us.

But there are differences among the three prophets. The main one between Richards and Parini is that, according to Richards, we must accept what he calls “the Neutralization of Nature, the transference from the Magical View of the world to the scientific.” By the Magical View, he meant “the belief in a world of spirits and powers which control events, and which can be evoked and, to some extent, controlled themselves by human practices.” We must not look for our salvation to the sun and the moon, trees and rivers. Richards scolded W. B. Yeats and D. H. Lawrence for thinking that we could. Nature has no interest in us, he insisted; it has nothing to say. Arnold thought that nature spoke to him in his time mainly through Wordsworth. Parini, too, thinks that poetry “returns us, through language, to the natural world”:

Poets have always returned to nature for inspiration, as when Louise Glück in “Flowering Plum” writes: “In spring from the black branches of the flowering plum tree/the woodthrush issues its routine/message of survival.”

Parini’s nature is a genial presence, never red in tooth and claw.

Returning to nature for inspiration may be an innocent device, or it may be specious: a sentimental indulgence. Either way, we are naive to claim, without evidence beyond woodthrushes and plum trees, that poetry will save us from any catastrophe—unless the “us” refers merely to a coterie, those who love poetry and think of their salvation as the happiness and security they find among verses. Parini, like Arnold and Richards in this respect, is trying—as T. S. Eliot put it in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933)—“to preserve emotions without the beliefs with which their history has been involved.”

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is University Professor and Professor of English and American Letters at New York University. His most recent book is On Eloquence.

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