What is it with me and antiques?

I read a book, Beautiful and Pointless, back in…let’s see…March of 2014, per the annotation in my notebook. Its subtitle is “A Guide to Modern Poetry,” though from what I remember the book did not take the tour-guide approach the title might imply.

When I picked it up, I thought it might be a different book, a book that I forgot to copy the title of and so have been completely unable to find again and re-read. But I hung on to it in part due to the title—I have been a sucker for things beautiful and pointless for almost as long as I can remember. China teacups while studying. Old editions of Emily Post. Victorian placesettings. Writing poetry.

In Beautiful and Pointless, David Orr penned the best internal debate about the practicality of poetry I’ve yet run across. So read it, excerpted below. And then, if you want more internal debates on the centrality of poems, read the absolutely gorgeous My Bright Abyss by the poet Christian Wyman.
And now for Mr. Orr:

[On defending the essentialness of poetry]

Let’s begin with the most basic problem with the typical defenses of poetry: Many of them underestimate the issue being confronted. […]
[N]o one chooses between reading the classics and not reading the classics where “not reading the classics” means something like “sitting around and staring blankly into space.” No, people choose between reading the classics and making soup, or going to the zoo, […] or any of a thousand other activities that directly benefit the world, or humanity, or themselves. And if this presents a dilemma for “the classics,” it’s an even more uncomfortable question for contemporary poetry, which by definition is not yet “classic” itself, and often not even very good at all.

[…] If we exclude early childhood, the average person has approximately three hundred thousand hours of waking life. Can we say with confidence that a thousand of those hours should be devoted to an obscure art form whose entire national audience could be seated in a typical college football stadium with room to spare? Are we so sure of what poems have to offer?
—from pages 168-169

[On claims poetry-lovers make for poetry]

  1. Poetry […] has something to do with specialness and language.
    {kds summary of text: Not tenable}
  2. Poetry has a unique connection with ourselves.
    {kds summary of text: Not demonstrably true}
  3. Poetry has a special position relative to society and/or culture [in that it bears witness, preserves tradition, resists ideologies].
    {kds summary of text: Not demonstrably true}

For these claims to be meaningful, then, they need to describe qualities either that are only demonstrated by poetry, or that poetry possesses to such a degree that other activities make unappealing substitutes. {kds summary of text: …which cannot be so demonstrated. Lots of wonderful things share these qualities. Oh, well, sad for poetry.}
—from page 170

[Why read poetry at all?]

I can only say that if you choose to give your attention to poetry […] that choice can be meaningful.
—from page 179

This is why I have this perennially wry smile when I reflect on my vocation as a poet. There’s no good reason for it. Nevertheless, it compels me!

Comment (1)

  1. Robert

    We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer: that you are here; that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be? — Dead Poet’s Society.

    No good reason except it helps you feel complete. Hmmm. Thousands of inventions aren’t the light bulb. Millions of speeches are not the Gettysburg Address. Hop on that compulsion and RIDE IT! 🙂

    Reply

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