MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

How Useless Is Poetry?

Percy_Bysshe_Shelley

(Percy Byssshe Shelley, portrait by Alfred Clint, 1819)

Nowadays the received wisdom seems to follow the Oscar Wilde line — literally, that is, without his archness — that “all art is quite useless.” Especially when the art in question is poetry and, even more, music. This alleged uselessness is then either trumpeted as a glorious thing — a refuge from the brutal world of commerce — or turned into a weapon to arm Philistines (“uselessness” abused).

A recent example of the former strategy is the poet and scholar Meena Alexander’s musing, in an address to the Yale Political Union last April, that poetry stands apart from the everyday world of historical reality: “The poem is an invention that exists in spite of history. Most of the forces in our ordinary lives as we live them now conspire against the making of a poem.”

Noah Berlatsky challenges Alexander by arguing that the whole issue of worrying about whether poetry in the abstract is “useless” is a detour: it arises from the “myth of an essential poetry, poetry that is important because of what it is, rather than because of what it says.”

When poets or writers have been persecuted, it’s generally not because of some abstract contradiction between tyranny and poetry. It’s because the persecuted poets said specific things the tyrants didn’t want to hear….

It’s long past time, therefore, that we stopped asking “What Use Is Poetry?” and started asking, “What Use Is This Poem?” In some cases, maybe, we’ll find uses we didn’t know existed. And in many cases, we’ll can respond, “none; this poem—not poetry as a whole, but this poem—is useless. Away with it, and let it bother us no more.”

Filed under: aesthetics, poetry

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  1. I find these comments very, very interesting.

    I’d add: of what use is poetry? It is of such use that bookshelves are clogged with translations of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.”

    We may not be able to articulate the uses of poetry, or of particular poems. But all of us should consider what it means for our society that we continue to return to poetry that is millennia old.

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