A Short Defense of Poetry

The following address was given at a round-table conference on “Tradition and Innovation in Contemporary Literature” at the International PEN Conference in Budapest, in October 1967.

Discussions of the role of the artist in society too often bear no fruit because the participants have not defined the meaning of the terms they use. So long as we misunderstand what others are saying, neither genuine agreement nor genuine difference of opinion is possible. Let me begin, therefore, with some definitions.

Individual. Primarily, a biological term—a tree, a horse, a man, a woman. Secondarily, since man is a social animal and born without instinctive modes of behavior, a social-political term—an American, a doctor, a member of the Smith family. As individuals, we are, willy-nilly, members of a society or societies, the nature of which is determined by biological and economic necessity. As individuals, we are created by sexual reproduction and social conditioning, and we cannot be identified except in terms of the societies of which we are members. As individuals we are comparable, classifiable, countable, replaceable.

Person. As a person each of us can say I in response to the thou’s of other persons. As a person each of us is unique, a member of a class of one with a unique perspective on the world, the like of whom has never existed before and never will again. The myth of the descent of all mankind from a single ancestor, Adam, is a way of saying that we are called into personal existence, not by any biological process, but by other persons, our parents, our friends, etc.; each of us, in fact, is Adam, an incarnation of all mankind. As persons we are not members of societies, but we are free to form communities, united to other persons, by a love of something other than ourselves, by music, stamp collecting, or what-have-you. As persons, we are incomparable, unclassifiable, uncountable, irreplaceable.

Most animals, it would seem, have some signal code for communicating between individuals of the same species, in order to convey vital information about sex, territory, food, enemies, etc. In social animals like the bee, this code may become extremely complex, but it remains a code, an impersonal tool of communication: it does not develop into speech, for speech is not a code but the living word. Only persons can create speech, for only persons desire freely to disclose themselves to each other, to address and be addressed in the first or second person, or by their proper names: all codes, however elaborate, are limited to the third person.

Since men are both social individuals and persons, they require both a code and speech. For both we employ what we call words, but between our use of them as signals and our use of them as personal speech, there is an absolute gulf, and, unless we recognize this, we can neither understand a literary art like poetry nor grasp its function.

The first and second personal pronouns have no gender; the…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.