Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Why Poetry Matters

Why Poetry Matters

jay parini
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 224
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Why Poetry Matters
    Book Description:

    Poetry doesn't matter to most people, observes Jay Parini at the opening of this book. But, undeterred, he commences a deeply felt meditation on poetry, its language and meaning, and its power to open minds and transform lives. By the end of the book, Parini has recovered a truth often obscured by our clamorous culture: without poetry, we live only partially, not fully conscious of the possibilities that life affords. Poetry indeed matters.

    A gifted poet and acclaimed teacher, Parini begins by looking at defenses of poetry written over the centuries. He ponders Aristotle, Horace, and Longinus, and moves on through Sidney, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Eliot, Frost, Stevens, and others. Parini examines the importance of poetic voice and the mysteries of metaphor. He argues that a poet's originality depends on a deep understanding of the traditions of political poetry, nature poetry, and religious poetry.

    Writing with a casual grace, Parini avoids jargon and makes his case in concise, direct terms: the mind of the poet supplies a light to the minds of others, kindling their imaginations, helping them to live their lives. The author's love of poetry suffuses this insightful book-a volume for all readers interested in a fresh introduction to the art that lies at the center of Western civilization.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14525-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. 1 defending poetry
    (pp. 1-22)

    Poets have been on the run since Plato announced in theRepublic(fourth century b.c.) that “there is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry.” Speaking in the voice of Socrates, he argued that poets should be kicked out of the ideal republic. They were no good because they imitated nature, which is itself an imitation of the ideal world—a heavenly kingdom of “reality” that surpasses these imperfect reflections everywhere presented to the human senses. With metaphysical slyness, Plato maintained that the poet “is an imitator, and therefore, like all other imitators, he is thrice removed from the king...

  5. 2 language
    (pp. 23-42)

    Language matters, and poetic language matters a great deal. What distinguishes human beings from other animals in the vast circus of this world is their ability to put ideas into words. They can talk about their feelings and signal to one another in complex ways, indicating an immense variety of things, important or trivial. They can formulate abstract notions, some of them profound. They frame laws and constitutions that define nation states and communities, articulate social norms, and make designs for living. News of what happens passes among them swiftly in language created for such a purpose. They communicate intense...

  6. 3 the personal voice
    (pp. 43-64)

    One hears a lot about voice in literary circles, where everyone apparently seeks this valuable commodity, panned for like gold in mountain springs by would-be poets (as well as novelists and others with aspiration to literary quality). But what is this coveted thing? Can it really be defined? How does it relate to the “public voice,” the voice of the culture at large, the culture “speaking” itself in the newspapers, on television, in speeches delivered by politicos, and in the very public conversations of pundits and celebrities? To what extent does the usually unheard voice of poetry matter in a...

  7. 4 the way of metaphor
    (pp. 65-78)

    Poetry could easily be called the language of metaphor, that figure of speech which offers a way of seeing one thing in terms of another. Poetry feasts on the similarities and differences between things. Indeed, a poet might well be described (in Aristotle’s terms) as someone capable of noticing likenesses. Exactly how metaphor works in poetry, and why this matters, will be the subject of this chapter.

    As suggested in the chapter epigraph, Frost was obsessed by metaphor, and by all forms of analogical thought, including his favorite figure of speech, synecdoche, whereby the part stands in for the whole...

  8. 5 tradition and originality
    (pp. 79-98)

    Tradition, that much-abused term, is often set in opposition to what T. S. Eliot called “the individual talent.” How poets deal with tradition and with what the critic W. Jackson Bate referred to as “the burden of the past” or what Harold Bloom, a leading contemporary theorist of literary tradition and its effects, termed “the anxiety of influence” has been widely debated. Perhaps too much has been made of this burden or anxiety—poets have always contended with the great figures who went before them, and they have usually done so by reinventing them in their own way, taking what...

  9. 6 form and freedom
    (pp. 99-114)

    The formal patterns of poetry help us to order our thoughts, to make sense of our lives. Poetry emerges from this primordial “rage for order,” the passion that Stevens refers to. It is ablessedrage for order, he suggests, because it helps us to live our lives by allowing us to find “ghostlier demarcations,” which are lines or boundaries between mind and world, between self and nature, matter and spirit. In finding these words, the poet reconnects us to some prior reality, linking us back (as inre-ligio:the root ofreligion) to our origins; that is, in poetry,...

  10. 7 the politics of poetry
    (pp. 115-132)

    Poetry matters, in part, because of its potential for political expression. While a good deal of poetry has nothing whatever to do with politics, or touches on issues that might be called “political” only in a tangential way, poets who willfully choose to ignore all political dimensions risk pushing their work into the margins. It is important for poets to read the world around them and to respond to that world in their own fashion: not in slogans that can be printed on posters or slapped onto bumpers but in urgent, astute ways that reflect the injustice and immorality everywhere...

  11. 8 a natural world
    (pp. 133-154)

    I shall consider the connections between poetry and nature, assuming (as I do) that nature—the wild, good earth that we feed off and that sustains us in spiritual as well as physical ways—matters a great deal. In this vein, poetry is useful because it draws us closer to the earth, helping us to see what lies about us and to understand the philosophical, psychological, and spiritual dimensions of nature. Poetry becomes, in effect, a natural scripture, one that calls us back to the ground itself, with all the physical and metaphorical resonances contained in that phrase.

    Poets have...

  12. 9 divine parameters: a reading of four quartets
    (pp. 155-176)

    Poetry is, at its best, a kind of scripture. It represents the inspired language of generations, language that helps us to live our lives by directing us along certain paths. It is not just that poetry matters;certainpoems matter. I have myself looked to specific poems for inspiration over many decades. As readers of this book could guess, I have been especially fond of poems by Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, and T. S. Eliot, who are among the great modern poets. Here I look closely at one of my favorite poems, Eliot’sFour Quartets, as an example of poetry...

  13. conclusion
    (pp. 177-182)

    Poetry does many things, as I have tried to suggest. For a start, it provides a language adequate to the experience of the writer and, perhaps, the reader (who are not so far apart as one might think, as Borges suggests). Poets may not be the “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” as Shelley grandly declared, but poets are most certainly “the legislators of the unacknowledged world,” as George Oppen wittily countered. They peer into hidden places and speak for those who have no voice. They wander into the cities and forests, with eyes and ears open, and report on these...

  14. notes
    (pp. 183-189)
  15. acknowledgments
    (pp. 190-190)
  16. index
    (pp. 191-204)
  17. credits
    (pp. 205-206)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 207-207)