May 8, 2018

they took us by surprise

More from Matthew Zapruder’s Why Poetry, which I have half a mind to give to my engineering students who will graduate in a couple of weeks:

I have always believed that poetry has its own special role, distinct from all other uses of language. I agree with W. S. Merwin when he writes, “Poetry like speech itself is made out of paradox, contradictions, irresolvables…It cannot be conscripted even into the service of good intentions.” He then goes on to explain, however, that circumstances can challenge this belief:

Poets have been known to be smug about their fine uselessness, but the Vietnam War led many poets of my generation to try to use poetry to make something stop happening. We will never know whether all that we wrote shortened that nightmare by one hour, saved a single life or the leaves on one tree, but it seemed unthinkable to many of us not to make the attempt and not to use whatever talent we had in order to do it. In the process we produced a great many bad poems, but our opposition to that horror and degradation was more than an intellectual formation, and sometimes it tapped depths of bewilderment, grief, rage, admiration, that took us by surprise. Occasionally it called for writings that may be poems after all.

It may very well be that we have entered another time when most poets will feel compelled to use poetry to stop things from happenings. Yet I believe that even if poetry did not do this, it would be vital to our survival.

See also this post on poetry and plain language and living with favorite poems.