• What's Poetry Good For?

    • Posted on Oct 30, 1985


    Washington columnist Jack Kilpatrick took off on poets last Sunday.  Kilpatrick is syndicated, so his anger over poetry not only appeared here in the Courier, it also rolled across the land.

    Mr. Kilpatrick was so angry, in fact, that he resorted to name calling, suggesting a poet was a “dirty little creep,” and that “on the basis of 60 years spent in reading and writing, our nation houses no more than half a dozen poets whose stuff is worth printing.”

    What upsets Kilpatrick is that poets have been subsidized in the last several years by the National Endowment for the Arts.  That means the taxpayers’ hard-earned money.

    During 1984, for example, 126 American poets – out of 1,100 applicants – were each granted 12,500 (that’s slightly over 1.5 million dollars) to write poetry.  He concludes, “At a time of 200 billion deficits, (such) subsides cannot possibly be defended.  They ought to be wiped out.”

    One quick reply to Kilpatrick might be to note that money spent on poets and poetry doesn’t begin to match the money spent on toilet seats for nuclear submarines.  That’s too easy; besides, two wrongs don’t make a right, if Kilpatrick is right.

    But he’s wrong.  And he’s wrong because he hasn’t the slightest idea what poetry is all about.  Nor do most Americans, I find.  They believe poetry … well, here are the myths, along with the truths:

    MYTH NO. 1:  Poetry should be pretty.  Kilpatrick rails about one poet’s work because it was obscene – “too lewd for publication in this family newspaper.”  So was Walt Whitman, in his day.  So is Allen Ginsberg, in ours.  Parts of Shakespeare, whole swatches of Swift’s poetry couldn’t be printed in a family newspaper today without somebody screaming “obscene.”

    Poetry is simply language used intensely – with all the rhythms, contextual meanings, connotations and sounds being carefully considered before being placed thus poets have a right to all parts of life, including what some consider obscene.

    Besides, what’s obscene changes radically from age to age, and if you try to define obscenity, you end up listing all the dirty words you ever heard.  You want obscene?  That’s obscene.

    MYTH NO. 2:  Poetry should rhyme:  “I think that I shall never see/ A poem as lovely as a tree.”  Now there’s poetry, they say.  Kilpatrick – and many others – complain that there aren’t any good poets today.  What they mean is that there aren’t any poets whose poems bump along predictably from line to line, each line ending happily in a memorable rhyme.

    Rhyme is only one of the resources that poets can use, and because it’s used so often and so mechanically by versifiers (check out the local card counter), real poets often avoid it.  Check out this poem, by e.e. cummings

    Buffalo Bill’s


              Who used to

                       Ride a watersmooth-silver


    and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat


    he was a handsome man

                                          And what I want to know is

    how do like your blueeyed boy

    Mister Death

    Language used intensely?  Yes, partly because cummings breaks so many rules.  Rhythms?  Yes, all over the place, but irregular.  Rhymes? No.

    Poetry?  Yes.

    MYTH NO. 3:  Poetry is useless blather, dreamed up by effete snobs with too much time on their hands.  This happens to be the hardest to refute, since America is the land of progress, of action, of busy-ness and industry.  People who seriously play with words seem almost anti-American.  Train them to fix cars, the Kilpatricks say.

    Listen to our best songs, read our best books watch our best movies and plays.  They’re filled with poetry – words that move us to tears, rhythms that delight, ideas and feelings that seem so perfectly expressed that even macho men gasp at times with pleasure and recognition. 

    Poetry, even at times bad poetry, binds us to a community of souls on the same odd and terrifying journeys.

    Without words we’d be forever separate. 

    Without poetry we’d be forever mute.

    Go comment!
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    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
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