The Real Case for Poetry

The Real Case for Poetry Air Date: May 23, 2009

Whatever small part of the news that’s devoted to poetry will likely assert that poetry is good for us. Our culture still lugs on its back the heavy duffel bag of Puritanism, and when well-meaning people—me among them—look for a way to promote the arts, we nearly always find ourselves making a case for their usefulness. Recently, a college president was reported to have said, apparently in all seriousness, that he did indeed support the arts because they’re useful to give people something to talk about at cocktail parties.

Even the academic world is a business these days, and business runs on efficacy and efficiency. It appears that only way the arts can get a hearing is by jumping on that bandwagon. And after all, when the walls of our past educational kingdom are crumbling, when even basic skills such as math and reading are failing to “take,” when money’s short and classes are large, practicality is forced upon us. When people come home from work, stare wearily at TV for a few minutes, and fall into bed, to argue that they should stop to read a poem seems like an argument for using an outhouse instead of a bathroom. Inconvenient, awkward, and slower to get to. It’s no wonder we keep looking for ways in which poetry’s “good for you.” People can be dragged out of bed sometimes at dawn to go for a run if they feel it’s good for them. Maybe they can be dragged to the page to read a poem.

Even play itself has been dissected and made useful. David Elkind, in his book called “The Power of Play,” says “Although work and play are thought to be in opposition to one another, they in fact complement one another. Any endeavor is more effective when all three drives are operative.” Effective. He goes on to explain how businesses run better, workers have a more positive attitude, and children learn better, given ample time for self-initiated play. I can’t argue with that, but it does seem sad to me that even what we choose to do, our kicking-around time, has been co-opted by the “usefulness” machine. For most of us, the very definition of kicking-around, of play, is that for a few minutes we’re free of what we “ought” to do.

It’s wonderful that our schools are beginning to take seriously the need to include more poetry in the curriculum. Poetry is showing up in various ways on standardized tests, and some teachers are getting quite good at teaching it. They know that studying poetry can enhance reading skills, promote precise use of language, help students express feelings, and encourage flexibility of mind, all skills that can carry over into a useful and productive life. The newly rich Poetry Foundation, based in Chicago, is pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into making poetry more visible and more accessible to the mainstream. And thank goodness for Ruth Lilly, whose endowment made that possible. I rejoice every time a poet is featured on the Lehrer News Hour, courtesy, in part, of the Poetry Foundation. So why am I a tad bit uneasy?

Like all art, poetry arises and flourishes as play. Real play is what you do when the grownups’ backs are turned. If they watch you and tell you to stack the blocks this way instead of that way, it takes the fun out of it. Art is first-of-all fun, it’s not first-of-all useful. Fun requires free time, a sense of having all the time in the world. That may be why people often drink when they’re at play—it seems to slow time down.

A poem is exasperatingly slow. It must be written within that all-the-time-in-the-world space. It demands to be read the same way. Now, here I could launch into all the reasons that slowness is good for us. But instead, I’d like to describe a poem as a deeply private play, one that reaches blindly into the unknown, defying all demands for efficiency. If your parents tell you it’s time to put your shoes on, you dawdle and keep fooling around with your Legos. You may be late, you little iconoclast, but you’re having a good time being alive, right at that moment.

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry