The Role of Poetry in Society

A poet friend, Stewart Warren, has asked for comments on The Role of Poetry in Society — Are poets guardians of truth and beauty, bell ringers of emerging consciousness, activists insisting on higher ideals, or children offering flowers to passersby? 

I have found an old essay by Kenneth Rexroth very helpful to me in answering this question from his book Bird in the Bush.  “[Poetry] widens and deepens and sharpens the sensibility and overcomes that dullness to significant experience that the Jesuits used to call ‘invincible ignorance’.  People are by and large routinized in their lives.  A great many of our responses to experience are necessarily dulled.  If to a certain extent they weren’t we’d all suffer from nervous breakdowns and die of high blood pressure at the age of twenty.  The organism has to protect itself.  It cannot be completely raw…. Poetry increases and guides our awareness to immediate experience and to the generalizations that can be made from immediate experience…Unorganized sensibility is simply irritability…The arts build in us scales and heirarchies of response.”  

I, too, believe, that poetry is filtered and guided and heightened experience.  Our role as poets is to communicate as immediately and intimately as possible from one person to another.  The role of poetry is not to persuade (although poetry that flows directly from the heart may well do that).  That is the role of rhetoric.  There is nothing wrong with rhetoric.  Rhetoric can be powerful and moving.  A great speech is a marvelous thing.  But the role of poetry is first of all  intimacy.  It requires the courage to journey into the unknown.


1 thought on “The Role of Poetry in Society

  1. Michael,
    I appreciate you posting the quote from Rexroth. I’m weaving that along with some other responses into the discussion I’ll be facilitating at the Karen Chamberlain Poetry Festival this weekend on the role of poetry.

    I particularly like your words: “…to communicate as immediately and intimately as possible from one person to another.” I find that that’s a fit with your poetry. For me your poems are often like really great folks songs, something to put in your backpack along with the bread and knife, because whether you realize their full value now or not, you’ll come across a place in America where that poem says just what you need to know.

    Often your poems say to me, “I’m a traveller and I’ve been here too–not been there, done that–but I know the howling down those dirty streets and the wide red sky above the mountain pass. Keep walking stranger; you’re not alone.”

    And there’s a music in your work. The way the content rises and falls, leaning in and out to sniff the wind, and the lines themselves, because they’re in step with the natural order of things. So the role of your poetry in my life has been a campfire wiht an old three-legged stool that felt like it was saved just for me. And man, that’s good stuff.

    walk a good poem,

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