Navigating poetry’s tumultuous waters | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Navigating poetry’s tumultuous waters

QUEST | Four books that shaped my thinking

Micah Mattix Photo by Carine Mattix

Navigating poetry’s tumultuous waters
You have {{ remainingArticles }} free {{ counterWords }} remaining. You've read all of your free articles.

Full access isn’t far.

We can’t release more of our sound journalism without a subscription, but we can make it easy for you to come aboard.

Get started for as low as $3.99 per month.

Current WORLD subscribers can log in to access content. Just go to "SIGN IN" at the top right.


Already a member? Sign in.

I have been reading poetry—and books about poetry—for some 30 years. I still remember picking up Franz Wright’s 1993 collection The Night World and the Word Night for the first time and being struck by the economy of expression, strange metaphors, and disarming honesty of the volume. It showed me, as the poet Frank O’Hara once remarked, that there was a quickness to poetry—an immediate sense of transport—that is rare in prose fiction. I was hooked.

Fashions have come and gone in 30 years, and not all of them have been good for poetry, but a handful of books on the art of poetry have helped me navigate contemporary poetry’s tumultuous waters.

Nature and Function

T.S. Eliot’s influence is not what it once was. There was a time when the Nobel laureate could fill a basketball stadium and people would travel across several states to listen to him speak. His poetry is still taught on most university campuses, and English majors, at least, are likely to have read his 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” But as important as that essay is (Eliot argues that the true artist both draws from tradition and reshapes it), Eliot’s later essays on poetry, collected in On Poetry and Poets, offer a more comprehensive look at the nature and function of poetry.

Poets today are frequently praised for the politics of their verse rather than its artistry. But Eliot reminds us in On Poetry and Poets that the test of “real poetry” is that it “survives not only a change of popular opinion but the complete extinction of interest in the issues with which the poet was passionately concerned.” This is because the primary function of poetry, according to Eliot, is not to shape society but to give pleasure, though this pleasure is not divorced from the meaning of the words of the poem. Otherwise, Eliot writes, “the pleasure itself could not be of the highest kind.”

Eliot is a sensitive comparative critic. In the second half of the volume, his essays on poets like Lord Byron, Rudyard Kipling, and W.B. Yeats, among others, offer a master class in reading poetry for the particular “kind of pleasure that poetry gives.”

Significance: Hidden and Divine

Jacques Maritain was a French philosopher and a contemporary of T.S. Eliot who used Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas to make sense of modern art and poetry. Maritain’s idea that the artist is not as concerned with “the material appearance of things” as he is with those “hidden significances whose iris God alone sees glittering on the neck of His creatures” reminds us that all great art—including poetry—is spiritual. The true subject of poetry is never temporary political concerns, as Eliot noted, but those unchanging, immaterial realities present in the material world—the “spiritual in the things of sense.”

Like Eliot, Maritain is careful to defend the distinctive nature of art and poetry. A poem is not merely a decorated philosophical tract or a sermon. It is an object—a made thing—that produces “delight” by its “reflection of an invisible order.” While “the beautiful is in close dependence upon what is metaphysically true,” Maritain writes, “the beautiful nevertheless is not a kind of truth, but a kind of good.”

Imitating the “First Fiat”

Published in 1989, George Steiner’s thorny book argues against the academic trend of deconstruction and its claim there is nothing outside the text. Steiner says a work of literature is not a mere language game. Rather, it communicates something of what he calls the “enigma” of life. “Serious painting, music, literature or sculpture,” Steiner writes, “make palpable to us, as do no other means of communication, the unassuaged, unhoused instability and estrangement of our condition.” Works of literature show us that we are both part of this material world and separate from it.

Steiner was a secular Jew, yet he argues in Real Presences that art itself is indebted to what he calls the “first fiat” of creation. “I take the aesthetic act,” he writes, “to be an imitatio, a replication on its own scale, of the inaccessible first fiat.” All great art, Steiner argues, provides us with an encounter with this first act of creation, however indirectly, and is therefore “religious.”

Poetry to the People

Finally, if Steiner’s Real Presences can occasionally be frustratingly abstract, Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter? is blessedly concrete and wise. Gioia was the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts under George W. Bush and is the former Poet Laureate of California. As a poet, he is one of the leading figures of a return to the formal and narrative possibilities of verse.

As a critic, he is best known for his 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter?” which was first published in The Atlantic and was collected in the eponymous volume of essays in 1992 that also included important reexaminations of Wallace Stevens, Robert Bly, Elizabeth Bishop, and other poets. “Can Poetry Matter?” provided a trenchant critique of American poets who in the 1970s and 1980s abandoned the general reader and instead attempted to land cushy academic appointments by addressing themselves exclusively to other poets through obscure academic journals. Publishing became a form of “professional validation,” Gioia wrote. The “integrity” of the art had been betrayed.

The essay was a clarion call for poets to return to their public role of “speaking to other men,” to borrow William Wordsworth’s famous phrase. It’s difficult to judge the effect of a single book, but it’s doubtful whether as many American poets would have begun to address a general audience the way they did had it not been for Gioia’s essay.

—Micah Mattix is the poetry editor of First Things magazine and co-editor of Christian Poetry in America Since 1940: An Anthology


Please wait while we load the latest comments...