MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

How Useless Is Poetry?

MEMETERIA by Thomas May


(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…

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