“Let us remember…that in the end we go to poetry for one reason…”

I firmly believe that poetry serves a range of cultural functions and I tend to bristle when someone says otherwise. Enter Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry, and his following statement that I got in the mail yesterday along with information trying to convince me to subscribe to the magazine:

Let us remember…that in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.

I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t appreciate the assumption that we all read poetry for “one reason.”

The Poetry Foundation, which received a $200 million gift from the late heiress Ruth Lilly, was in the news a few weeks ago because of recent allegations of “questionable governance and management practices.”

I would add to these grievances questionable proofreading. I think the promotional card should have read:

Let us remember…that in the end we go to Poetry for one reason…

So along with blowing “$1 million on a Web site and a brow-raising $706,000 on a survey to determine poetry’s place in American life today,” the foundation needs to worry about firing the intern who missed the capital “P” and italics.

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25 thoughts on ““Let us remember…that in the end we go to poetry for one reason…”

    • Definitely– I just think you can’t really begin any sentence with the phrase: “We go to poetry for one reason…”

      I mean, all things considered, Wiman does a decent job finessing a universalizing statement but still…

      Through a kind of syllogistic reasoning, the implication is that reading poetry is going to save the world and help people. I’m all for these two things–don’t get me wrong–but why do we have to drag poor poetry into this? And this is not to say that I’m against political poetry or socially conscious art either. That’s just one out of many reasons we go to literature.

  1. As much as I don’t love “Poetry” in its present form, it’s still leagues better than when that misogynist a-hole Joseph Parisi was running it. It’s pretentious, but at least it’s not blithering superfluous gossip.

    I once watched Joseph Parisi ask an entire crowd of people to raise their hand for every female poet they were familiar with in his “100 Essential Modern Poems by Women.” I kid you not. He went through the entire TOC and asked people to raise their hands a possible 76 times. And by the time he finished that, we had to kick him off the stage to allow Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Liesel Mueller, to read her poem, before we ran out of time.

    In my small handful of encounters with Christian Wiman, I find him to be far more self-effacing and woman-friendly, at the very least.

    Oh, blah blah blah. The lesser of two evils, I suppose.

    • Hi Jac. Sure– definitely the current sensibility of _Poetry_ is much better than ten years ago and seems to be less narrow minded. I have to say I don’t read it much, but when I did it was nice to see them printing things like visual poetry and Flarf. I suppose I was being a bit cutesy at the end with the slippage between poetry and _Poetry_. I’m not so much against Wiman but rather reductive statements about poetry.

  2. I got that in the mail yesterday. What struck me was that it’s the exact same ask they were sending out as early as 2005, A. E. Stallings poem and all. In the past 5 years you haven’t been able to accomplish anything worth revising your materials for? With all that money? Really?

      • Seems like the arguments here are a little opposed, at best: y’all question their website (which happens to be an incredible resource for teachers and students), but are angered by the lack of a fresh postcard, the production of which would cost all that much more money?

        I see other ways the use of that hundred mill could be questioned–instead of thrusting it all into their own programs, they could have, say, invested it into dozens of other literary magazines wherein poets and editors could earn some real salaries.

        But to question the website, and Wiman’s quote, seems a little off.

        Just two cents from a random–
        C.

        • Hi Chris,

          I’m happy to have your two cents. I agree with you about other ways of using all that cash–your idea about other magazines is a good one and I remember reading Adrienne Rich saying somewhere that the funds could also provide some poets with decent health insurance.

          Regarding the website– well, _The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics_ is also a great resource for teachers and students but I’m pretty sure it didn’t cost a million bucks to produce.

          As far as the postcard– on the one hand, it was just a light-hearted quip… on the other hand, the postcard and the Wiman quote represent a particular ideological view of poetry, which gets us into not so light-hearted terrain… I think Tadd’s comment below hits the nail on the head and addresses the issues that made me post this in the first place: why the need to instrumentalize poetry– and especially in such a didactic way?

  3. To steer things away from the Poetry pile-on and towards the underlying question: I’m pretty suspicious of the idea that poetry–or literature more generally–must fulfill any function at all. The idea that literature’s value must be determined by its instrumental use, rather than, say, its aesthetic effect, seems pretty limiting to me, to be honest.

    • I think you get right to the heart of the matter, Tadd– nice point. I think readers need to be really careful about instrumentalizing literature or defining literature in essentialist terms.

      I forgot where I read this but Tzvetan Todorov has a really beautiful discussion somewhere about how you really can’t formulate a positive definition of literature that is both transhistorical and transcultural.

  4. Pingback: poetry « the line i crossed

  5. Wiman’s quote actually struck a chord with me. I had been trying to articulate the reason I read poetry every day, and Wiman’s quote perfectly summed it up. I go to poetry to more fully inhabit my life. It’s that simple. Poetry takes me out of the everyday mundane and allows me to have a deeper experience on a daily basis. The second part of his quote is political, of course, but it can be interpreted in many ways. Perhaps we destroy our world and our lives by not taking the time to fully inhabit them and be in the moment. We destroy our lives by not living them, and part of living them is recognizing them.

    • Fair enough, Lauren. This post was part provocation and part clowning around, so I more than expect other people to have differing opinions. I do think the quote is too delimiting, too reductive and, at the same time, too presumptuous and sure of itself– and, in this way, it seems to obliterate difference, to not acknowledge the vital differences between the various incarnations that we call poetry. That said, I’m all for the transformation and the defamiliarization of the mundane…

  6. Amazing, You people have to find every little thing to complain about and if you write for the right reasons(but from some of the comments i read i would say you don’t) then you know that poetry is unleashed from the mind and is all personal opinion including : Thoughts,Dreams,Ideas, and wonder. If You do NOT Like something then you are not forced to read it so if you can not find something good in what he says move on, DON’T REDICULE, someones poetry.

    Your fellow poet
    C.K.Elliott

    • A clarification, Charles, on the difference between the general and the particular:

      Look at the post again and you’ll find that I wasn’t “ridiculing” anyone’s “poetry.” I’m not sure what you’re looking at exactly…

      I wanted to make a provocative point about the way people define poetry and what ramifications this might have regarding editorial and/or institutional practices — hence the humorous slippage I wanted to create between “poetry,” the general term, and “Poetry,” the specific and historically-bound publication.

      Within the realm of poetry and imaginative writing — I find it insidious that people assume that there is a univocality about “our” aims and ideologies. I want to trouble any sense of easy consensus — and more particularly — any misguided and moralistic attitude about what constitutes legitimate writing (writing for “the right reasons,” as you so boldly proclaim).

      “You people,” huh? I think if you had read Big Other posts and discussions more carefully, you would have noticed that we are not a monolithic entity and we all don’t agree — and that’s the beauty about discourse about literature. The ground of any kind of “fellowship” in letters is a shifting one that depends upon not singularity but difference. In short, the “you” that you so wrongly assume is singular is, in actuality, plural.

      • Hear, hear! Yes, and I’d say there needs to be more questioning of univocality about aims and ideologies as it reveals itself in the arts, culture, politics, etc. And yes, Big Other is anything but a “monolithic” entity.

  7. I Apologize i had misread it my computer was glitching and i wrote off of what i saw which was not much. Please forgive me

    C.K Elliott

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