Is poetry irrelevant?
AS Ben Jonson's play of 1598, ``Every Man in His Humour,'' opens, an old gentleman, Kno'well, laments that his son appears to have gone astray. He has become a poet. He muses that the young man ... is now Dreaming on nought but idle
poetry, That fruitless and unprofitable art,
and while he admits that once he thought it ``the mistress of all knowledge,'' he adds that since then, ... time, and the truth have waked
my judgment, And reason taught me better to
distinguish, The vain, from th' useful learnings.
After almost four centuries, Kno'well's view is still generally held. Poetry will never teach one to buy well on margin, nor fix a car, nor manufacture a computer. Indeed, perhaps computers will one day learn to write it, and then we can be done with it.
Of all the major arts, perhaps poetry is the most unprofitable. After all, to be a wholehearted poet, do you not have to carry flowers around, like to stand out in storms in a black cape, wear a tricornered hat and speak in a whispery voice, or strum idly on a mandolin and leap suddenly about declaiming? Such things have a distinctly negative impact on one's image.
Or else don't you have to attach yourself to an academic post, where the audience is captive, though knowledgeable enough to be much more serious about accounting courses? There will be an occasional waif or stray who gravitates toward poetry, like Ed Kno'well, but almost all will learn better.
Of course, there is the alternative of just keeping quiet about one's adherence to poetry, doing something truly useful with most of one's time, and publishing poems in obscure periodicals read only by similar people, many of whom are more intent on seeing their own poems in print than in reading those of others.
Or one can write the primitive verse of pop songs and hide it behind the music. Or ... well, of course, there is another view of it, which one might epitomize in Thoreau's remark that the poet is actuated by pure love.
He was seeing the poet as someone with poetic attitudes rather than someone who writes verse, but the two are somehow allied. And that is what makes poetry survive in an intensely practical nation and general culture. There is really a lot of pure love around. People who gravitate toward poetry do so because of an internal necessity, a private desire to see deeply and individually, to express resourcefully, and to experience the expressions of others who are so motivated.
No doubt it ought to be this way. No one will enrich himself by means of poetry. Few will become famous, and even those few will be very selectively known, surely never acclaimed like the average NFL quarterback. With this in mind it is truly heartening to realize that poetry is probably in a healthier state (in its quiet, tree-shaded world) than it has ever been before in the national life of the United States, and perhaps in much of the Western world. More is being written, discussed, and presented than ever, and in greater variety. An increase of leisure for knowledge of it also enriches the culture. New printing methods make reproduction much simpler. More people understand its resources than ever before.
Of course, it still is not a popular art, nor should it be. Popular arts are built on easy accessibility, wide readership, and an appeal to general thought. All good poetry demands some reaching, and some of it a truly venturesome leap of thought, suspension of judgment, or careful study.
Toward the end of ``Every Man in His Humour,'' Ed Kno'well defends genuine poetry to his father, saying, ... view her in her glorious
ornaments Attired in the majesty of art, Oh, then how proud a presence doth
Of the true poet he says, ... than which reverend name Nothing can more adorn humanity.
Naturally this is a highly partisan opinion, a young one, and not an apt description of many good poems or true poets. Were the play continued, perhaps the press of future commerce might have squeezed that opinion out of young Kno'well someday. He has just married and may feel the weight and dignity of his position endangered by public knowledge of his idiosyncratic inclination toward poetry. But then he has courage, and all poetry involves the courage of invention and presentation.
Poetry is a modest art, but like many modest people it has intense vitality. It will never be irrelevant, however publicly ignored, because its essence, even in the commercial West, is a part of the core of humanity. People interested in poetry realize that the chief things to be gained from poetry are poems themselves. And that is enough.
Wherever people are perceptive and inventive, and wherever they like to use language deftly and stretch its limits, poetry will survive. Its adherents accept the obscurity of their taste with grace and an easy shrug. At their best they have a way of jogging the chair of complacency askew while one is sitting in it, and doing it with such panache that one bemusedly adjusts one's seating in a different posture, then finds oneself looking at things from a slightly different angle. A person could do worse than have such a function.