Can a poem still change anything?

So asks Alexandra Petri in The Washington Post.

Why, yes:

Scientists, psychologists and English academics at Liverpool University have found that reading the works of the Bard and other classical writers has a beneficial effect on the mind, catches the reader’s attention and triggers moments of self-reflection….

The research also found that reading poetry, in particular, increases activity in the right hemisphere of the brain, an area concerned with “autobiographical memory”, helping the reader to reflect on and reappraise their own experiences in light of what they have read. The academics said this meant the classics were more useful than self-help books.

Shakespeare and Wordsworth boost the brain, new research reveals (The Telegraph).

At a number of other levels, a poem can change people. I can attest to that. And if a poem can change a person, it can change the world.

A few more thoughts on Petri’s article. It is titled “Is Poetry Dead?” This is a flawed way to approach the issue. Poetry is not a living thing and it can’t die. Such a sloppy way to frame the question is a sure way to ensure a sloppy answer. While the title may be riffing off Joseph Epstein’s 1988 article “Who Killed Poetry?” that doesn’t make it any better as a question.

Petri also states, “[A]ll the things that poetry used to do, other things do much better.” Such as produce poems? What, pray tell, produces a poem better than poetry? Nothing does sculpture like sculpture. Nothing does ballet like ballet. Nothing does poetry like poetry. Petri misses this basic point.

She also states that “there is no longer, really, any formal innovation possible.” I am not sure how she can predict the future, but seeing as she still has to work for a living, her powers of prescience are suspect at best.

I suggest Petri read David X. Novack’s “The Man Who Killed Poetry: Joseph Epstein And His Essays,” an excellent primer on the state of the “how important is poetry today” debate, a debate Petri gives the impression of wading into without much real thought.

And back to the subject of change: Petri writes, “You can tell that a medium is still vital by posing the question: Can it change anything?”

Here is a great answer to that question:

Your generalization does not specify what kind of “change” you mean. Literal political change? That’s what you go on to suggest. Along with “revolution.”

Be serious. Congress can barely do that. Look what hell the president has to go through to do anything. But you attack American poets. You name none of them except the one you happened to see on TV, and you suggest his whole career is irrelevant to everyone because it is irrelevant to you. And apparently it is irrelevant to you because he does not live up to some high school ideal.

A requirement of political change is too much to ask of any artist. Kurt Vonnegut said in 2003: “every respectable artist in this country was against the war [in Vietnam]. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.”

There’s also Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky: “Ever since art has existed, mankind has always strived to influence the world through it. But on the whole it has always failed to have much social or political effect. I think now, looking around me and also looking back, art cannot really affect social development. It can only influence the development of minds. It can work on our intelligence and on our spirit. But for changing things, there are greater social forces than art. After all, practically all human endeavor has as its aim the changing of the world.” (thanks Jason Bredle)

Is poetry dead? Nonsense, says John Deming (Salon)


Oh, dear, after having heard from every poetry lover, and their siblings, and their siblings’ dogs, Petri now concludes she was wrong and poetry is not dead.

In fact, it may be TOO alive. And there’s got to be something wrong with that, right? Says Petri:

Maybe a better question would be, “is Poetry too alive for its own good?” “In the Internet age, where every urge to expression can find an audience, is not poetry perhaps the best-positioned of all arts?” “Is there too much poetry?” “Are there too many poets?” “Can someone remove these poets from my Internet lawn?”

“‘Poetry is not dead,’ says poetry” (Washington Post)

I’d like a bowl of “just right,” please.

And how do you spell “whiplash” anyway? I hope dictionaries aren’t dead too. Or not dead at all and in fact much too common.


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