Equipment for Living: Poetry’s complex consolations

BY MICHAEL ROBBINS

equipment-for-livingA new thing appears,” Annie Dillard writes, “as if we needed a new thing.” What are we doing with all these films and songs and novels and poems and pictures? Why keep making them? Don’t we have enough, or too much?

I find I can’t get away from my early reading of Harold Bloom, who proposes that we ask of a text: “what is it good for, what can I do with it, what can it do for me, what can I make it mean?” Things that answer these questions — things that are good for something, that we can do something with, that we can make do things for us, that we can make mean something — we call equipment.

Hammers, for instance, are good for lots of things — building birdhouses, bludgeoning ideological opponents, breaking down and 
becoming present-at-hand. But a hammer is obviously designed in such a way that certain purposes (driving nails) are more plausible than others. For Kenneth Burke, poetry is designed for living:

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