A Mirror and a Barometer: On the Public Use of Poetry
Merz, Teresa Ann
O'Brien, William J.
Poetry, as a contemporary literary genre, is generally read by a small, self-selecting audience, and in this sense, it largely remains a private art. This paper discusses the public use of this private art, to consider if and how it can make a positive contribution to civil discourse and engagement in civic life. It affirms that poetry does have a public use, that it is an art form uniquely capable of fostering a sense of cultural cohesion by expressing the shared values of a community. This paper explores how the work of five individual poets exemplifies a public use of poetry across time and cultures: the Classical Roman poet Virgil, the Late Medieval Italian poet Dante, the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, the twentieth century francophone poet Léopold Sédar Senghor, and the twentieth century Irish poet Seamus Heaney.As an introduction to this exploration of how poetry can yield power in public life, and what use it has for civil society, this paper looks briefly at remarks from three contemporary American poets: the current Poet Laureate of the United States, Tracy K. Smith, the poet, critic and former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia, and the poet, critic and farmer Wendell Berry.Then, focusing on the epic and lyric genres, it asserts that the techniques of meter, diction and metaphor are integral to the durability of poetic expression.This orientation is followed by a brief survey of five potential public uses that can be attributed to this literary genre. From Plato’s harsh critique of poets in The Republic, one infers poetry’s use to inculcate a moral lesson; from William Wordsworth’s “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads,” the use of poetry to rectify emotions; from Carolyn Forché’s anthology, Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, the use of poetry as historical witness and socio-political obligation; from Seamus Heaney’s various essays the use of poetry as a means of redress and affirmation; and from Earl Shorris’ Riches for the Poor, the use of poetry, in a humanities curriculum, as a means of social and political inclusion.These five lenses are then applied to selections from the five poets mentioned, with the result of seeing how the private voices and the public concerns are successfully interwoven. Three public organizations that rely on poetry in their programming to advance civil society are also highlighted: the Clemente Course in the Humanities, the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, and Split This Rock.The paper concludes that poetry is a constant and regenerative resource for humanity. Its primary public use is to create cultural cohesion: either by the solidarity created by public programs that utilize poetry, or by the values expressed by public poets, whose work mirrors their own individual spirit while being a barometer for the community in which they live and write.
Showing items related by title, author, creator and subject.