A brief, passionate book about the nature of poetry and its use in the world 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.
About the Author
Jay Parini, a poet, novelist, and biographer, is D. E. Axinn Professor of English at Middlebury College. Among his many books are five volumes of poetry, most recently The Art of Subtraction: New and Selected Poems. His poems, articles, and reviews appear regularly in such journals as the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Harper’s, Poetry, the New York Times Book Review, the Guardian, and the Times Literary Supplement. He lives in Weybridge, VT.
Table of Contents
Defending Poetry 1
The Personal Voice 43
The Way of Metaphor 65
Tradition and Originality 79
Form and Freedom 99
The Politics of Poetry 115
A Natural World 133
Divine Parameters: A Reading of Four Quartets 155
Jay Parini reflects on poetry and its place in our lives . . .
For almost forty years, I've begun every morning by reading poetry and, usually, writing it as well. I tend to read classic poets, especially Wordsworth, Whitman, Dickinson, Hopkins, Frost, Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens. I also wade among the contemporary poets, especially Adrienne Rich, Seamus Heaney, Charles Simic, Charles Wright, Louise Glück, and Mary Oliver. I refer often to these poets in Why Poetry Matters.
As I say in these pages, poetry is a language adequate to our experience. It teaches us how to live our lives, how to locate and describe the inner life. I believe very confidently that poetry enhances our sense of the spiritual world by attaching us closelyalmost physicallyto the material world. The Scriptures didn’t end when the Bible was set in stone. In fact, prophets arise constantly, and poetry is a form of prophesy, telling us things we need to know. It is, as Ezra Pound says, news that stays news. It refreshes our lives by refreshing our sense of language, making reality visible in unique ways.
I argue in various ways in this book that poetry offers a way to sanity and clarity, helping us to see ourselves and our world. It offers modes of expression, refining the language of ordinary life. It is the “common language heightened,” as Hopkins says. By offering a language adequate to experience, poetry creates a reality that is equal to the reality of experience, and therefore makes reality palpable, “real,” understandable.
This is a deeply personal book, the result of long reflection on the art of poetry, as a reader of poems and a poet. I've also been a teacher of poetry for as many years, and Why Poetry Matters is to some degree a result of trying to help students to read poetry with genuine appreciation and feeling. My hope is that this book will make poetry available to a much wider audience by talking about its essential aspects in straightforward but suggestive ways.