Poetry's Muchness and Manyness

Article excerpt

POETRY THRIVES in the United States as never before. Nobody believes it - but more people write poems, read them, and listen to them. More people buy poetry's books and read its magazines. Although quantity need bear no relation to quality, much contemporary poetry is competent and readable, encounters of present language with perennial experience. Much is better than competent, original in language and daring in inclusiveness. Some small part of our poetry now, I believe, will survive while the language survives.

Of course, most published poetry is bad: Journalists leap to their feet, announcing this discovery. But most published poetry has always been bad - as most tennis players play bad tennis. Most poetry will be bad like most omelettes, but it doesn't keep us from entering the kitchen.

We all want to be chefs. Why not? If we love good food - if we love poetry's art - we try our hand at making what we love. Trying and failing to write a good poem, we learn better to read - and to read ourselves.

We read and write poetry more than ever because, more than ever, we require it. Poetry clarifies and energizes the language we understand ourselves by, language that loud commerce carefully misuses; poetry's language resists the public moment. Most poetry, over the last 200 years, uses language to explore and test feeling. When emotion becomes art we can measure ourselves by it; the poet's self-exploration explores the reader. Clarity, not simplicity, is the issue.

Simplification is a manipulative tool, for real feeling is complex and often contradictory. "Odi et amo," said Catullus, the Roman lyric poet of the first century B.C. "I hate and I love." So do we all. …