- This article was just brought to my attention by the author, Eugene Schlanger. I thought that many readers, even if they didn’t agree with my post Let Poetry Die (or its later rewrite Redux), might find the piece equally thought provoking.
ecently, Forbes magazine attempted to measure the effect of Ruth Lilly’s $185 million bequest to the Poetry Foundation. That foundation, which publishes Poetry magazine, claims that it reached 19 million new poetry readers last year. John Barr, its president, a poet and a former investment banker, suggested this was positive evidence of the growth of the public’s awareness and reception of this art form. Quantitatively, the market for poetry may have increased. Qualitatively, the results are far less clear.
In 1943 T. S. Eliot addressed the British-Norwegian Institute and attempted to measure the social function of poetry. He asked whether a poem could serve a public purpose. In addition to the pleasure of reading, can a poem expand the public’s awareness of non-literary issues, such as those in the social, political, economic, or religious arenas? Noting his inability to read Norwegian, Eliot said that if hypothetically no new Norwegian poetry were ever to be written again, he still understood that was a global loss because it would affect the ability of all people to express themselves. In other words, although civilizations and nations differ, poetic language has a universal purpose.
Against these differing backgrounds—monetized and anthropological—one may inquire about the current state and purpose of contemporary American poetry, not from the point of view of the poetry establishment but from the perspective of the general public. This question may be even more relevant in our age of constant communications when an astute observation or an expression of heightened awareness can circumvent all boundaries and be republished instantly. One might expect well-crafted words to have more of an effect and function in these circumstances. One might also expect American poetry to have more of a general audience.