Poetry Is Just Fine, Thank You

Moderation (State 1),1 2 Wenceslas Hollar

Thesis: Poetry must prove its utility; Thesis: Poetry is a disappointment; Thesis: Poetry is fine, but try to write better poems.

The ars poetica, the apology or defense of poetry, and the poetry manifesto are all united by a single goal: to save poetry. But… save it from what?

The podcast High Theory opens (after someone first making a particular kind of breathy noise that some people, not me, of course, might say sounds like the exhalation that follows taking a deep toke or perhaps even someone bogarting that joint) with the hosts introducing themselves as just two tired academics trying to save theory from itself.

I say this because, at least once a year, it feels like, some pedestrian publication (The Atlantic and The Chronicle of Higher Education, for example) publishes some an essay by some famously inoffensive writer who says that poetry is dying the kind of slow, locally noisy, and awkward death usually only found in Tolstoy stories. The assassin is invariably contemporary poets themselves, but, as luck would have it, the essay’s middlebrow mastermind has a plan to save poetry… from itself. All this appears to be posited without authorial recourse to narcotics and it shows.

The classic ars poetica, Horace’s Ars Poetica, is written in verse, but let us simplify things and call all three examples of an ars poetica because giving them a single name saves time and because ars poetica sounds more poetic than “manifesto” or “defense” (and changes in language have made ‘apology’ sound even more defensive than it did five hundred years ago).

Across nearly two millennia, Horace, Sir Philip Sidney, and Ben Lerner each wrote their own ars poetica: Ars Poetica, The Defense of Poesy, and The Hatred of Poetry. Each corresponding to one of the dialectics above.

Plato’s outsized influence on western thought combined with his famous banishment of poets from his ideal republic, is the great shadow which darkens poetry’s future. Like a literary Eye of Sauron, he threatens to seek it out its readers and writers. If caught by the Eye, the reader or poet must make some practical and moral account for their participation in its corrupting influence. Anyone who has read Plato’s accounts of Socrates grilling lesser men who do not (yet) agree with him will surely suspect that they will never be able to his satisfy his complaints (in fact, Lerner will say that it is impossible to do it to anyone’s true satisfaction).

Percy Bysshe Shelley also hangs uncomfortably over poetry, having given it a purpose and a value that we do not, deep down, believe it has or could have. When he said that poets were the world’s unacknowledged legislators, only the adjective feels true and the poet is always in danger of thinking that once upon a time, their predecessors were people of power and influence and they missed it. Finally, there is W.H. Auden’s out of context, yet deeply terrifying line, ‘poetry makes nothing happen.’ Something, apparently, must be done about poetry. But what is the problem and what must be done about it?

Sidney’s Defense of Poesy grapples explicitly with Plato’s republican banishment of all but the most didactic poetry and theoretically ennobling hymns. He also, unknowingly, begins to make the case for Shelley’s future claim, by making poetry an important part of the education of future citizens and leaders. Nonetheless, for Sidney, it is ultimately Plato’s claim in The Republic that poets and most poetry have no place in his perfect polity is what he must refute and everything in the Defense is directed towards that purpose.

Plato makes several claims about poetry in The Republic and elsewhere, but Sidney boils it down to a basic point: poetry is a bad moral teacher. The writer of Defense of Poesy, suffice to say, does not agree. Poetry, you see, is actually perfect for Plato’s ideal republic, because poetry is the finest agent of moral education. Poetry, ‘doth intend the winning of the mind from wickedness to virtue.’3 With its fine and pleasing language, it is like something which has a ‘pleasant taste’ in which can be hidden ‘wholesome things.’4 Basically, he is saying that Plato got it all wrong. Plato feared that poetry’s pleasing lines made the bad deeds of myth sound like fun and inspire people to imitate not just Odysseus’ wisdom, but also his tricksome nature. In Plato’s regimented republic, such inspirations could only lead to a breakdown of society.

But it is not poetry, only poetry done wrong that is the problem (something that Horace will agree with, after a fashion). ‘If the poet do his part aright,’ Sidney explains, the reader or listener will clearly see and understand what is to be ‘shunned’ and ‘each thing to be followed.’5 This is not to say that poetry will not show people who ‘speed well enough in their abominable injustice of usurpation’ nor fail to show ‘virtuous Cato driven to kill himself,’ but that these are part of our history.6 In this, of course, he implicitly criticizes Plato’s so-called ‘Noble Lie.’ In this, he also subtly transforms the poet from simply an imitator to translator, who, when depicting history and myth, ‘doth intend the winning of the mind from wickedness to virtue’ and does so, as a doctor does, by taking ‘wholesome things and hiding them in such other as have pleasant taste.’7

Poetry is not a threat, therefore, to Plato’s republic. It is closer to the noble lie, itself, being the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. Now, in fairness to Plato, Sidney still fails to provide a solution to the still thorny problem of bad poets or rather, poets who do not do their parts aright (allowing for good poets having an off day). The contemporary poet turned successful novelist, Ben Lerner, identifies something much more dangerous to poetry’s future than Plato’s actual arguments. It is what those arguments suggest about poetry, something Shelley does, too, which is far worse, even than Auden’s downbeat assessment.

The problem for Lerner is that poems will always fail. Lerner’s founding myth is that of Caedmon, the seventh century English poet.8 Caedmon felt inadequate to contribute to the singing and recitations that were part of festive gatherings and always withdrew before he could be called upon to participate. God, however, appears to him in a dream and commands Caedmon to “Sing the beginning of created things.”9 Caedmon sings powerfully and beautifully and, when he wakes, writes down the poem. But it is not the same poem. Frankly, it is not as good as the one he sang in his divine dream. This, argues Lerner, is true of all poems. The problem is not Plato’s banishment, but the outsized expectations that it creates, for Lerner: “I remember first reading Plato at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library and feeling poetry must be a powerful art if the just city depended upon its suppression.”10

But, Lerner argues, poetry does not, and probably never did, have the impact on society suggested by Plato’s need to banish its practitioners. Citing the critic Michael Clune, Lerner writes that John Keats came the closest to realizing poetry’s potential power by coming closest to creating the ‘higher music’11 hinted at and sometimes even directly referenced in his poems.

He also references those regular jeremiads that criticize contemporary poetry for failure to live up to past greatness, as when he quotes from George Packer pleading in a New Yorker blog for then President-Elect Barack Obama not to have an inaugural poem written and read for his swearing-in. In his telling, Packer offers a cursory reading of the selected poet, Elizabeth Alexander, via her website, and concludes she is inadequate, but also that poetry, over the course of many decades has become too… too… too something to have the required impact and ability to move people (move how, Lerner asks?) that it should have. Lerner muses whether he is not conflating poetry with the oratory12 of figures like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or, if not, which poet from decades past fulfilled his expectations. The answer, of course, for Lerner, at least, is no one.

It is not possible. Poetry is always reaching towards an imaginary music or impact and contemporaries who seek to save, rescue, resuscitate, or whatever messianic verb they prefer are reaching back towards a golden age that never existed. Poetry never had the power its critics imagined.13

“Poetry” becomes a word for an outside that poems cannot bring about, but can make felt, albeit as an absence, albeit through embarrassment. The periodic denunciations of contemporary poetry should therefore be understood as the bitter logic of poetry, not as its repudiation.14

His ultimate conclusion is less downbeat than that quote suggests, and he provides some wonderful takedowns of takedowns of contemporary poetry, but the positive note he offers on poetry and his defense of contemporary poetry was better undertaken over two thousand years before Lerner completed high school.

Quintus Horatius Flaccus helped invent the genre I (and he) called the ars poetica and it can feel like people have been ignoring his lessons ever since. What is the lesson of Horace? What is endangering poetry and how are we to save it? He never comes out and says it, but he is clearly uninterested in the existential threats that Sidney and Lerner. What he is interested in is providing advice and, in the advice he gives, a picture becomes clear: if anything is endangering poetry, it is probably bad poetry and if we want to save it, why not start with writing good poetry? And how do we do that? Write within yourself and your limitations. Write what is appropriate for the theme or occasion. Learn your trade. Balance talent and tradecraft.

Aspiring writer, be sure to be careful to pick
Material that you’re strong enough to handle;
Give careful consideration to the question
Of what your shoulders can carry and what they can’t.15

…If what you know
Is how to draw the picture of a cypress,
That’s not much use if what you’re paid to do
Is to paint the picture of a panicked sailor…16

If I didn’t know how these ways of writing differ
In what they are suited for, and if didn’t
Act on what I knew, tell me, would I
Have any right to be credited as a poet?17

The question often comes up, whether a good
Poem derives from nature or from art?
The truth of it is, learning is nothing at all
Without the bounty of nature, and natural talent
Is nothing at all if left to itself untaught.18

Horace saw many challenges to poetry, but he never raised them to the level of existential challenges. Poetry and poets, he seemed to think, would go on (and, in some cases, on and on and on and on and on…19 and the job of poets should be to write the best possible poems.

As far as Plato’s claims, well, the Roman sees the small picture. In his epistle To Augustus, he tells Rome’s princeps that poems can make ‘little contributions’ to the ‘greater good’ by helping children learn to speak well and provide good examples20 though this later seems to a sort of response to Plato, it is distinguished from Sidney by its nonchalance; they are some brief lines in a self-effacing poem, not an entire treatise). As far as being a threat to society’s stability, he gives a poetic shrug. He even encourages a sort of diminution, writing in his epistle To Nuncius that the feelings of awe and sublimity should be avoided, saying that the secret to happiness is “Never to be bowled over.”21

Contemporary poets, rather than contributing to poetry’s decline, are a topic of interest in his epistle To Julius Flores. One poet, Celsus, was apparently told to stay away from old writers, lest he pick up bad habits.22 If Packer, as Lerner notes, does not see contemporary poets as writing work of sufficient to move the people,23 Horace’s hackles are raised when recent poetry is criticized, in effect, being new, while ancient writers are granted unstinted praise, instead of having their faults criticized, too.24

If it’s not important, what should poets do then? Write well, as Horace tells us, do not settle for false, faint, nor uneducated praise if you want to improve.

If you want to write poems, don’t let yourself be fooled
By what the fox foxily hides from you.25

In fairness to Sidney and Lerner, both talk about poetic technique. Lerner notes how Claudia Rankine’s uses virgules in her collection Citizen: An American Lyric as a sign of ‘banished possibility’26 and Sidney speaks of the importance (especially if the poem will be used to teach, because it makes for easier memorization and recitation) of ‘every word having his natural seat.’27 But these are not the purposes of Sidney and Lerner’s ars poeticas. In Sidney’s case, they are tools in the larger purpose of proving to a long dead Greek philosopher that he was wrong to banish poets. For Lerner, it feels like a half-hearted effort to defend poetry after trying to establish that poetry will always fail.

I think that I will side with Horace here: Poetry doesn’t need saving, it needs more good poems. ∎

  1. Multa petentibus / desunt multa. Bene est, cui Deus obtulit / parca, quod satis est manu. [Those who seek for much are left in want of much. Happy is he to whom God has given, with sparing hand, as much as is enough.]; Horace, Carmina, Book III. 16. 42.
  2. quod satis est cui contingit nihil amplius optat. [He who is satisfied with what is at hand, wishes for nothing more.]; From The Classical Journal: Volume 35, Jan., 1827, Nugae (trifles), E. Cooper, “Notes on Horace”, p. 319: “With regard, then, to the verse of Horace under discussion, we tire strongly disposed to prefer the reading of a majority of the Mss., and of all the early editions, “Quod satis est, cui contingit, nihil amplius optat.” The commonly received text was first promulgated, we believe, by Lambinus, who thus annotates upon the passage: “Sic legendum est, et ita scrip-turn reperi in tribus libris antiquiss. onmes quidem habent con-tigit, non autem contingit.” In the Cambridge Horace of 1699 the old reading is restored, with the following remark: “Larribinus tres Mss. sectitus reponit, contigit, hic-. Caeteri libri Mss. et meliores e vulgatis assentiunt lectioni a nobis re-ceptw ; nisi quod in Trin. et Cadomensi legatur, Cui satis est (pod contingit.” Bentley reads contingit, as do also Culling-Valart, and Kidd. Gesner follows the received reading. As regards the sense, both are equally good: the only other passage in Horace where quod satis occurs in a similar connexion, Lib. iii. Cam. xvi. 43, “bene est, cui deus obtulit Parca, quod satis est, manu,” seems rather to favor the proposed alteration. It is easy to conceive that hic may originally have been added in the margin as a gloss, (the construction of the passage not having been obvious at first sight,) that it may from thence have found its way into the text, and that some later copyist, with a view of restoring the metre, which had been violated by the interpolation, may have altered contingit into contigit.”
  3. Sidney, Philip; Sidney’s ‘The Defense of Poesy’ and Selected Renaissance Literary Criticism, ed. Alexander, Gavin; Penguin Classics, pp 23
  4. Sidney, pp 23
  5. Sidney, pp 19
  6. Sidney, pp 21
  7. Sidney, pp 23
  8. Lerner, Ben; The Hatred of Poetry; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016, pp 7
  9. Lerner, pp 7
  10. Lerner, pp 19
  11. Lerner, pp 32
  12. Sidney acknowledges that discussions of poetry can tend to bleed over into oratory because ‘both have such an affinity in the wordish consideration’ (Sidney, pp 51)
  13. Though Lerner does drift away on an extended tangent about Walt Whitman whose long, rolling, inclusive lines did, in his telling, give voice some democratic ideal in the idea of the United States, but then seems to conclude that Whitman is, in the end, sui generis. He also, in a latter section, while criticizing Mark Edmundson’s critique of slam poetry, which seems to hold up Whitman an example of a kind of universalism, askes “Why Whitman should be a considered a success and not a failure is never addressed; it’s as if Whitman’s dream was realized in some vague past the nostalgists can never quite pinpoint.” (Lerner, pp 55)
  14. Lerner, pp 54
  15. Horace, translated by David Ferry; The Epistle of Horace; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2001, pp 153
  16. Horace, pp 153
  17. Horace, pp 157
  18. Horace, pp 181
  19. Let your play be five acts long, no more, no less/ If you every want it staged a second time.(Horace, pp 165)
  20. To Augustus, (Horace, pp 119-121)
  21. Horace, pp 29
  22. Horace, pp 19
  23. Lerner, pp 42
  24. Horace, pp 117
  25. Horace, pp 183
  26. Lerner, pp 73
  27. Sidney, pp 32