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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 third has gender, and should really be called impersonal. It is a grammatical necessity, when speaking about someone to a third party, to use the third person, but to think of others as him or her is to think of them, not as persons, but as individuals.

Proper names are untranslatable. When translating into English a German novel the hero of which is called Heinrich, the translator will write Heinrich: he will not change it to Henry.

Poetry is speech at its most personal, the most intimate of dialogues. A poem does not come to life until a reader makes his response to the words written by the poet.

Propaganda is a monologue which seeks not a response but an echo. To recognize this is not to condemn all propaganda as such. Propaganda is a necessity of all human social life. But to fail to recognize the difference between poetry and propaganda does untold mischief to both: poetry loses its value and propaganda its effectiveness.

In more primitive forms of social organization than our own, in tribal or peasant societies, for example, the personal nature of poetic speech is obscured by the fact that, in them, society and community are more or less coincident. Everybody is engaged in the same kind of economic activity, everybody knows everybody else personally and has more or less the same interests in common. Furthermore, in a primitive society, poetry, the speech of personal disclosure, has not yet separated itself from magic, the attempt to control natural forces by verbal manipulation. Again, until the invention of writing, the fact that verse is easier to remember than prose gives the former an unpoetic social utility value as a mnemonic for handing down essential knowledge from one generation to the next.

Whatever real social evil exists, poetry, or any of the arts for that matter, is useless as a weapon. Aside from direct political action, the only weapon is factual reportage—photographs, statistics, eyewitness reports.

The social conditions I know personally and within which I have to write are those of a technologically advanced, urbanized, affluent society, and I am convinced that in any society, whatever its political structure, which attains the same level of technological development, urbanization, and wealth, a poet will be faced with the same problems.

It is difficult to conceive of an affluent society which is not a society organized for consumption. The danger inherent in such a society is of failing to distinguish between those goods which, like food, can be consumed and forgotten or, like clothing and automobiles, discarded and replaced by newer goods, and spiritual goods like works of art which can only nourish if they are not consumed.

In an affluent society like the United States, his publisher’s royalty statements make it only too clear to a poet that poetry is not popular with the reading public. To any person who works in this medium, this should be, I believe, cause more for pride than for shame. The reading public has learned how to consume even the greatest fiction as if it were a can of soup. It has learned to misuse even the greatest music as background noise to study or conversation. Business executives can buy great paintings and hang them on their walls as status trophies. Tourists can “do” the greatest architecture in an hour’s guided tour. But poetry, thank God, the public still finds indigestible; it still must either be “read,” that is to say, entered into by a personal encounter, or it must be left alone. However pitiful a handful his readers, a poet at least knows this much about them: they have a personal relation to his work. And this is more than any best-selling novelist dare claim.

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