Poetry Isn’t as Useless as a Lot of Poets Say It Is

Kipling-MinajA recent speech at Yale inadvertently sums up what’s wrong with the art form these days: Its gatekeepers believe poetry matters because it’s poetry, not because of what it says.

Poetry is useless.

That’s the prevailing sentiment in our culture, as far as I can tell. CEOs and lawyers rule the world. Policemen protect property and keep the peace and provide material for television dramas. Athletes and rock stars and movie stars make tons of money and provide material for gossip columns. But poets? Who cares? “It is difficult to imagine a world without movies, plays, novels and music, but a world without poems doesn’t have to be imagined,” as Newsweek said way back in 2003, when a large gift to Poetry magazine was supposed to change the face of poetry but, unsurprisingly, didn’t. A 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts found that about 14 percent of the people in the U.S. read poetry, which seems generous. To compare poetry to other art/entertainment genres on Google Trends  is to see the obvious. Poetry doesn’t move public conversation; its only use, the thinking goes, is to give some handful of people tenure so they can spend their days in the ivory tower endlessly recycling their unentertaining irrelevance.

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