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Reviews & Recollections
On the Difficulty of Reading
Modern Poetry: Hart Crane and
Edna St. Vincent Millay
"'It was because you wanted to be a teacher that you provoked
that trouble with the lions,' said the heavenly king. 'How true,'
said Monkey with a smile, 'how true.'"
- Journey to the West, Chapter 90
the globalization of poetry
In the last few decades, the worldwide
Poetry Industry has refined its product
down to two essential purposes: 1) Poetry is
a means of self-expression, or 2) poetry is a
vehicle for fostering social justice. These are
certainly two things poetry can do. But two
Before about the 1970s - for 5,000-plus years,
that is - the primary purpose of poetry,
whether written or oral, was entertainment.
It happens that language can do powerful
things to your mind. So poetry was a form of
entertainment that could awaken your mind.
The awakening was to emotions and other
kinds of mind-expanding feelings that words
Anyone can write poems to entertain
himself or express himself in his own private
world. This can be a useful, even awakening,
activity. But when the poems are offered for
others to read, the activity is no longer the
writer's, and becomes the reader's. Simple
outpourings of feeling usually do not stir
anything that is not already awake, or
Social issues can be useful topics for poems.
And so can everything else. When a poem on
a social topic is offered for others to read, it is
a good poem not when it expresses a moral
view you already hold, but is good when it
inspires a powerful feeling that is a new
understanding of the topic. It's not the topic
or the moral "message" that makes the poem.
Poems that restate the statements of other
poems awaken nothing new. Eventually they
become tiresome. If a poem conveys to you a
feeling or thought you already know, then
it's not much of a poem. What makes a poem
is the awakening it inspires.
There are myriads of kinds of inspiration
beyond those that state your sense of social
justice. Poems can awaken them.
Unfortunately for all of us, the Poetry
Industry does not see it this way. Some
high-profile, wealthy industrialists have
stated flat-out that the only legitimate
purposes for reading and writing are to
foster social justice or to express personal
feelings. This narrow view of poetry is a
framework for worldwide psychic poverty.
Essays from Maine's backwoods
available for immediate
or in paperback ($16.95)