I Love Poetry; It's F#*%king Worthless
Welcome to Poetry Month, all you April Fools and literary leprechauns. For the past several weeks, here at Foreword Reviews, we’ve been quietly whittling through scores upon stacks of poetry collections in search of thirty poems we plan to drop on you every morning this month. So, in addition to your habits of hygiene to assure that you smell like spring flowers, you now have one more daily chore: read a poem.
Why poetry, you ask.
Picture the inside of your skull, padded like the walls of a psych hospital. Your brain is in there binging on Facebook/texting/email—the equivalent of a pinball hooked up to an electric cattle prod. You attention span is measured in billionths of seconds.
Now, picture the telltale lines and shape of a poem on paper in your hands. Slowly you read, not stopping till the end. You start from the top again, slower this time, out loud. You hear a little singsongy music and energy hidden in the words. Images come to mind. You’re deja vuing all over again about an ancient world and ideas that didn’t come from ad copywriters.
That’s you on poetry. There’s no test. Let it be whatever it wants to be in your mind.
The big question is, What is a poet? Here’s the brilliant Guy Davenport:
The poet, like a horse, is a mythological creature. … Their duties are the same, their numen, their intractable identity and presence. They are, they always have been. The horse is as archaic as he is modern, forever the ’neighing quadruped, used in war, and draught and carriage’ that Johnson [Lonnie] said he was, independent of time and fashion: which is why Christopher Fry called him the last mythological beast. Eternity seems to have made a separate contract with him, and extended the same codicil to the poet, who also is neither archaic nor modern, or rather is most modern when he is most archaic. For the work of the poet is continuous, while all other modes of discourse—mathematics, physics, politics—are wildly discontinuous, repeating stupidities because they forgot the past, stopping and starting because of barbarians, rebellions, and simple loss of vision. The poet works his melodies into the very grain of existence.
Poetry plays the role of court jester and conscience in this world of commerce, acquisition, and productivity. Its sacred importance lies in the fact that it’s nonessential, even useless. Nobody counts on a poet to resuscitate a heart attack victim, clean windows, or change tires. But the poet’s business, in the words of William Carlos Williams, is to let the world speak for itself. To pick away at the rock until what’s left is reality in a poem.
When asked about his use of a rhyme, Theophile Gautier answered:
What use is this? Its use is to be beautiful. Not enough? Like flowers, like perfumes, like birds, like all the things that man has been unable to redirect and pervert to his service. In general, as soon as something becomes useful, it ceases to be beautiful.
Yes, we feel that strongly about poetry. You can thank this stellar list of of fiercely independent publishers for making the selection process easier. It was from their stable of skilled poets that we found our thirty poems: University of Wisconsin Press, Baobab Press, Haymarket Books, Wayne State University Press, Biblioasis, BkMk Press (University of Missouri-Kansas City), Etruscan Press, Saturnalia Books, Wesleyan University Press, Mercer University Press, Lithic Press, University of Chicago Press, Autumn House Press, Sixteen Rivers Press, University of Notre Dame Press, Milkweed Editions, Copper Canyon Press, Able Muse Press, The Sheep Meadow Press, Southern Illinois University Press, Cleveland State University Poetry Center, Persea Books, Risk Press, Anhinga Press, University of Iowa Press, University of Nebraska, l’Aleph, Upper Hand Press, and House of Anansi.
What then is the value of a poem? Only you can answer that question but “if one cannot understand the usefulness of the useless, and the uselessness of the useful, one cannot understand art,” Eugene Ionesco says with no irony whatsoever.
Enjoy this daily plate of art. And please share these gems with family, friends, and those who seek profit and gain at the expense of their soul.
Matt Sutherland is Editor in Chief at Foreword Reviews. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.