Don’t let the boy just loaf about;
If he writes verses, kick him out.
—Martial (c. 40–c. 103)
Poetry has been around forever. It predates literacy and perhaps even the gods, who, some say, were invented by poets. There are so many types of poems, ranging from the epic to the tiny haiku, that it took The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics 1,554 pages to list and describe them all. Though it has mutated over the centuries, with the lyric poem becoming in more recent times the favored mode of expression, it can still be defined as “language that sounds better and means more.”1 The miracle of poetry is that a three-thousand-year-old poem can still speak to us today. If there had been no continuity of some kind, poetry and poets would have been extinct long ago.
That this little-understood and often marginalized human activity has given the world some of the greatest works of literature, many of which have outlived the civilizations and the languages in which they were originally composed, is beyond dispute. “Poetry is indeed something divine,” Shelley wrote. Hearing an outburst like that, one is liable to conclude that the monkeys who came down from the trees cannot live without poetry, but a cooler head reminds us, “Bread is necessary; poetry isn’t necessary in the way cake isn’t necessary. Cake marks important occasions.” Still, Molly Peacock goes on to say, “Can you imagine living in a city without a bakery? Without cake?”2
Of course, poets and poetry have had enemies. Plato famously condemned poets’ propensity to pass off their fantasies as truth and banished them from his ideal Republic. That poets are not right in the head is a common belief. Who in their right mind would choose a lifetime of poverty and ridicule? Poets were accused of perverting morality and corrupting the young, of being blasphemous, unpatriotic, and dirty. It took extraordinary malice and determination over the centuries to destroy nearly every copy of every extant poem by Sappho. Even the enlightened eighteenth century of Hobbes and Locke with their elevation of reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy denounced poetry, since a rational mind finds it intolerable to be in the company of imagination. Metaphor, the very soul of poetry, was demoted to a superfluous stylistic ornament.
The Romantic movement restored poetry and imagination, but now poets came to be viewed as either harmless eccentrics or crazed revolutionaries determined to overturn the existing order. In more recent times, neither the political right nor the political left has been a defender of poetry. Degenerate literature, the Nazis called much of it; bourgeois individualism was the Soviet name for it. The goal of every collectivist project in history being to wrestle away the self from the individual,…
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