Poetry's Mythology

Every morning I begin the day with a book of poems open at the breakfast table. I read a poem, perhaps two. I think about the poetry. I often make notes in my journal. The reading of the poem informs my day, adds brightness to my step, creates shades of feeling that formerly had been unavailable to me. In many cases, I remember lines, whole passages, that float in my head all day — snatches of song, as it were. I firmly believe my life would be infinitely poorer without poetry, its music, its deep wisdom.

(More when you follow the link.

I didn't know where to start in responding to this. It's been a long time since I've read an essay about poetry so flagrantly couched in privilege while wearing such privilege on its sleeve, as if it belonged there.

Mr. Parini cultivates a portrait of himself as, one might say, someone unfettered by the overall demands of what it means to be a poet who, you know, works. Who has a family, a house, a life, who does the dishes and has to walk the dog and such. Who might not have time to eat a square breakfast before running to the train to get to a job where there are few moments of pause, if any. And who then arrives back home near or after dark, hungry, beleaguered, thinking of poetry only as a last resort and, even then, reluctantly.

And too, I think there's masturbatory aspect of criticism here wherein poetry begets poetry. That one must lead a life steeped in verse in order to produce it. (I half-agree.) I just don't understand why poetry consider poetry outside of other forms of literature, or music, or art. Why can't we replace "poetry" here with "rock music"? Or, that my fervent television viewing habits, involving Lost, reality shows, and Buffy can't be considered foundational materials for a quirky little chapbook like The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon?

I suppose I'm saying my fear is that living along the lines outlined in Parini's essay would lead many poets down familiar paths toward familiar poems and poetics, in a way that risks little and cashes in frequently.

But isn't it more fun to sit quietly in the dark, wondering what else is in the room with you--and more importantly, which of you will strike first?


  1. I didn't like the tone of his essay either. He lumps "poets of the 20th century" into one big "difficult" pot. I hate when people do that.

    I don't feel the need for footnotes to enjoy Stevens or Williams, for example.

    And I have yet to meet a single person who reads Pound with "ease." Or even who really reads Pound, for that matter.

    I would love to begin my day in comfortable ease, at the table with an open book. But I am able to grab a book now and then and read a poem while the kids are eating. Well on weekends.

    Music is easier to keep around.

  2. But I like a lot of what he says later. He gives a little condensed version of a lot of thoughts about poetry in general, and that's kind of handy.

  3. I often think that I'm more content as a person when I slow down and read more poetry. But, then, is it the poetry? Or the slowing down?

    I agree that the guy is arrogant, that he buys into the "use flowery language to describe poetry" school of English prof, and that it is a luxury of his life that he can not only read a poem with breakfast, but also journal about it in relative peace.

    That said, I think that the core element of tracts like this is taking time. And taking time is good. Being arrogant is annoying, but promoting trying to find a little time in life to slow down is a pretty good goal.

    I think I've digressed from his point, but that's where it took me.

    That may also reflect my wish that I had more time to reflect and slow down, but I just don't think it's in my nature.

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  5. Oh yeah, I got that link from Book Club Lady too. Frankly I didn't even make it through the whole essay, but rolled my eyes and tossed it electronically aside because, in addition to any other intellectual sins, it immediately (almost before you start to *read* it, even) manages to fail the prime imperative of any kind of writing, critical or otherwise: FOR CHRISSAKE DO NOT BE BORING. It reads like it was published in 1952, as well. (Crap, *was* it? I'd better go check....)

    Okay, no, it's just SEEMS as if it were sixty years old. Plus he's unforgiveably stupid about Ginsberg too (who's the most contemporary poet he's read, apparently. Whooohoooooooo, Mr. Why Poetry Matters, it's your own epithet calling for you, wanting to know WHEN was the last time you laid out some miserly Yale cash for a new book or two?!? Jesus, can you not get *advance* copies?)

    Upon further reflection, the only thing I find at all surprising is that Mr. Parini hasn't already served as PLOTUS by now. He's probably got "SOQ POET" on the personalized plate of his K-car.

  6. Too many poets and critics believe they are destined to be poetry's fabled White Knight or Messiah. As if everyone will, after reading what he or she has to say on the subject, find some new revelation and say:

    "Oh, I get it now. I have been a fool all these years, but now I finally understand."

    Not enough poets and critics are interested in looking at one poem at a time.

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  8. While I appreciate your analysis of Mr. Parini’s essay, I think it sidesteps the point. Parini spends only a single paragraph, out of a 19 paragraph essay, describing his morning poetry for breakfast routine. He does go on to say that the aftertaste lingers the whole day through, but only until his focus moves on to other things. I don’t find Parini arrogant or boring like other readers do; his language isn’t the most fiery, sassy, surprising work I’ve read in recent years, but he does make a few solid points & provides context, something good non-fiction should be applauded for. His tone, to me, seems earnest & impassioned, if removedly so.

    His essay isn’t about the privileged life of the college professor, or about the privileged life of the poet. It seems to me that his essay is a sort of ars poetica, though less a defense of poetry & its worthwhile, perhaps necessary effects, & more an essay that roots for poetry in a world where it gets far less playing time than it used to. Is that all bad?

    I don’t agree with Emerson & Parini that words suggest only natural facts, or that the likes of Frost, Byron, & Oppen comprise a representative sample of what makes good poetry, which makes sense since tastes differ. I don't think one requires footnotes to get something out of or respond to Stevens. And I don’t agree with Auden & Parini that ‘poetry makes nothing happen.’ It may not get full scale, immediate results, but it can make things happen. It’s helped me, for one, keep my head above water when I’ve been up to my neck in fierce, relentless melancholy.

    I do agree with Parini, though, that ‘language defines us as human beings.’ Language may not be the sole factor that defines us as such, but it does accomplish that task—it creates worlds, & it can just as easily tear them down. But it can build them back up again, too, & that, I think, as I believe Parini thinks, too, is part of the reason, a big part, why poetry matters. Thanks for getting the conversation going, Charles.