Monday, January 10, 2011

Monkeys, Wrenches, and the Discursive Situation of Poetry

Rejoice!  Mary Biddinger and John Gallaher's new collection of essays on poetics, The Monkey and the Wrench, has finally appeared (at least in my mailbox, where a set of contributor's copies arrived today).  Not only does it look good, its svelte 175 pages contains a wealth of good stuff for anyone interested in contemporary poetry and poetics, including:

• Stephen Burt on rhyme in contemporary poetry
• Cole Swenson on hybrid poetry and its discontents
• Elissa Gabbert on the common moves of the contemporary poem
• Michael Dumanis on litany
• David Kirby's "A Wilderness of Monkeys"
Essays by Benjamin Paloff, Elizabeth Robinson, and Joy Katz
• A symposium on hybrid aesthetics featuring Arielle Greenberg, Michael Theune, Mark Wallace, and Megan Volpert

The only defilement of this otherwise excellent volume is my own contribution.  It's called "The Discursive Situation of Poetry," and it attempts to explain why poetry has declined in popularity and influence since its heyday (which was not when most commentators think it was).

It begins like this:


The Discursive Situation of Poetry

“Why do poets continue to write?  Why keep playing if it’s such a mug’s game?  Some, no doubt, simply fail to understand the situation.”
—Sven Birkerts

The important point to notice, though, is this:
    Each poet knew for whom he had to write,
Because their life was still the same as his.
    As long as art remains a parasite
    On any class of persons it's alright;
The only thing it must be is attendant,
The only thing it mustn't, independent.
—W.H. Auden

Statistics confirm what many have long suspected: poetry is being read by an ever-smaller slice of the American reading public.  Poets and critics who have intuited this have blamed many things, but for the most part they have blamed the rise of M.F.A. programs in creative writing.  While they have made various recommendations on how to remedy the situation, these remedies are destined for failure or, at best, for very limited success, because the rise of MFA programs is merely a symptom of much larger and farther-reaching trends.  These trends are unlikely to be reversed by the intervention of a few poets, critics, and arts-administrators.  I’m not sure this is a bad thing.  Or, in any event, I’m not sure it is worse than what a reversal of the decline in readership would entail.  Let me explain.

While we don’t have many instruments for measuring the place of poetry in American life, all our instruments agree: poetry has been dropping precipitously in popularity for some time.  In 1992, the National Endowment for the Arts conducted a survey that concluded only 17.1% of those who read books had read any poetry in the previous year.  A similar N.E.A. survey published in 2002 found that the figure had declined to 12.1%.  The N.E.A. numbers for 2008 were grimmer still: only 8.3% of book readers had read any poetry in the survey period (Bain).  The portion of readers who read any poetry at all has, it seems, been cut in half over sixteen years.  Poetry boosters can’t help but be distressed by the trend.
            Poets and poetry lovers have somewhat less faith in statistics and rather more faith in intuition and personal observation than the population at large.  They’ve intuited this state of affairs for more than two decades, beginning long before the statistical trend became clear in all its stark, numerical reality.   As far back as 1983, Donald Hall sounded a warning note in his essay “Poetry and Ambition.”  Although he did not blame the rise of the graduate creative writing programs for the loss of connection with an audience, he did feel that M.F.A. programs created certain formal similarity among poems.  The programs produced “McPoets,” writing “McPoems” that were brief, interchangeable, and unambitious.  His solution, delivered with tongue firmly in cheek, was to abolish M.F.A. programs entirely.  “What a ringing slogan for a new Cato,” wrote Hall, “Iowa delenda est!” (Hall).  Five years later Joseph Epstein picked up Hall’s standard, and carried it further.  In the incendiary essay “Who Killed Poetry?” Epstein argued that the rise of writing poems led not only to diminishments of ambition and quality — it furthered the decline of poetry’s audience.  The popular audience for poetry may have shrunk by the 1950s, argued Epstein, but at least the poets of midcentury were revered, and engaged with the larger intellectual world.  By the late 1980s, though, poetry existed in “a vacuum.”  And what was the nature of this vacuum?  “I should say that it consists of this,” wrote Epstein, “it is scarcely read.”  Indeed, he continues,

Contemporary poetry is no longer a part of the regular intellectual diet. People of general intellectual interests who feel that they ought to read or at least know about works on modern society or recent history or novels that attempt to convey something about the way we live now, no longer feel the same compunction about contemporary poetry.… It begins to seem, in fact, a sideline activity, a little as chiropractic or acupuncture is to mainstream medicine—odd, strange, but with a small cult of followers who swear by it. (Epstein)

The principle culprit in the sidelining of poetry was, for Epstein, the credentialing and employment of poets in graduate writing programs.  “Whereas one tended to think of the modern poet as an artist,” argued Epstein, “one tends to think of the contemporary poet as a professional,” and, “like a true professional, he is insulated within the world of his fellow-professionals” (Epstein).  The poet, instead of responding to the audience-driven world of the book market, responds only to his peers, with the effect that the audience simply melts away.
            Après Epstein, le déluge.  The 1990s saw a phalanx of poets and critics complaining about the decline of poetry’s audience, and linking this decline to the rise of M.F.A. programs.  Dana Gioia fired the loudest shot when, in Can Poetry Matter? (published as an article in The Atlantic in 1991, republished in book form a year later).  “American poetry now belongs to a subculture,” said Gioia, “no longer part of the mainstream of intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group” (1).  While he allows that they have done so “unwittingly,” it is “the explosion of academic writing programs” that is to blame for this sad state of affairs, as far as Gioia is concerned (2).  Gioia was by no means alone in this opinion.  Vernon Shetley’s 1993 study After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America tells us that poetry has “lost the attention not merely of common readers but of intellectuals” (3) – and that creative writing programs have contributed to this loss by cultivating “a disturbing complacency” and by “narrowing of the scope” of poetry (19).  Bruce Bawer introduces his 1995 book of criticism Prophets and Professors by lamenting the professionalizing of poetry.  He tells us that “those who read poetry — which, in our society, basically means poets” shy away from being too critical of the art, since “they conside[r] poetry so ailing and marginal a genre that criticism was… like kicking an invalid” (8).  In the same year, Thomas Disch claimed in The Castle of Indolence that “for most readers… contemporary poetry might as well not exist.”  The reason, he says, is

…that the workshops, which have a monopoly on the training of poets, encourage indolence, incompetence, smugness, and — most perniciously — that sense of victimization and special entitlement that poets now come to share with other artists who depend on government or institutional patronage to sustain their art, pay their salaries, and provide for their vacations. (5)

Blaming writing programs for the isolation of poetry extended beyond the fairly conservative literary preserves inhabited by the likes of Bawer, Disch, and Epstein. Charles Bernstein’s 1995 essay “Warning — Poetry Area: Publics Under Construction,” argues “it is bad for poetry, and for poets, to be nourished so disproportionately” by universities, adding that “the sort of poetry I care for has its natural habitat in the streets and offices and malls” (Bernstein).
            By 1999, the chorus had grown so loud that Christopher Beach claimed we were “discussing the death of poetry to death” (19).  Not that this stopped anyone.  In 2006, Poetry Foundation President John Barr caused a stir with “American Poetry in the New Century,” an article in Poetry magazine in which he noted poetry’s “striking absence from the public dialogues of our day,” as a sign that we have a reading public “in whose mind poetry is missing and unmissed.”  The problem, he asserts, stems from the writing programs.  These produce poets who “write for one another,” producing “a poetry that is neither robust, resonant, nor… entertaining.”  It cannot exist without “academic subsidies” and fails in the market, unable to sell in “commercial quantities” (Barr).  While Barr surveys the terrain from the heights of the Poetry Foundation offices above Chicago, more recently the poet Daniel Nester has come to similar conclusions (albeit without the invocation of the values of the marketplace) from the depths of New York’s poetry scene.  Nester has characterized that scene as the product of the writing programs.  Looking around at poetry events, he says he’d see university cliques such as the “Group of People Who Went to Iowa” and those starting “Teaching Jobs Out West.”  The scene was isolated from a larger engagement with society, with “a lack of connection to the reader” and readings attended only by “other aspiring poets” (Nester 2009).  “It’s an unsustainable system,” he said when asked by an interviewer about his article.  “Even the most niche of niche art forms has an audience.  Not so with contemporary poetry” (Nester 2010).
            As even this brief and incomplete survey of writers makes clear, American poets have noted the decline of the audience for poetry, and found it troubling.  But when decriers of the decline make M.F.A. programs their whipping boy they misunderstand the role such programs play in the distancing of poet from audience.  In fact, poetry’s decline of popularity predates the rise of writing programs, and such programs are properly seen as the latest episode in of a larger and long-enduring drama, a drama that began in the nineteenth century.


Well, I go on from there for quite a while. But fret not: I don't argue against MFAs, or against poetry mattering — but I do try to look at the conditions under which poetry is hugely popular, and those conditions usually entail a lot of social negatives. 

Anyway, don't let my contribution prevent you from getting the book!  Copies are a laughably cheap ten bucks at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or actual bookstores, if they're hip.  


  1. Anonymous12:42 PM

    The problem is-what is considered good poetry by academia is just trash and they control the poetry press! I was just reading classic poets last night and tried to switch to contemporary poetry and thought to myself, "What is going on? It makes no sense, it is stark and lacking in soul?" I am a huge poetry fan and writer, but most of what is published today is just awful, from kids who are pretending to feel something or know something, but who don't know or feel anything yet! Or it is written by people who live in a egotistical world of "look how clever I am, no one understands my deep work." They are obtuse to the point of madness. I was just thinking last night I am so glad that the truly great poets, didn't have anyone to tell them how to write great poetry, or how to flesh out their metaphors, etc. Poetry is going to die on the vine for lack of soul. Then, I began listening to old blues, bluegrass and country music on UTube and I thought thank God these forms of art were too lowbrow for academia, so they weren't corrupted by its souless force. They are perfect just as they are, coarse and all. Give me emotion, soul, over highly crafted and technical poetry any day! I like soul in my music and I like soul in my poetry and soul is just not there anymore with the obsessive drive to create something only the poet himself can understand. Poetry today is to self absorbed and an insult to the reader. Nothing infuriates me more than to waste my time reading something that is obtuse! There was a reason for writing in code at one point, but those reasons don't exist today. To write in double meanings today is just as bad as trying to imitate old English in a current poem. The MFA programs are the biggest part of the problem. Academia controls the poetry press and their one view of "perfect poetry" rules. Look at the credit in any journal. The vast, vast majority of what gets printed are MFA's and the vast majority of what is published is not read or liked by the people, even people like me who live and breathe poetry. If you have lost a poetry lover like me, there is no one left! Case in point, I was looking at the results of the monthly contest put on by my city poetry association. They are judged by one judge and then by the audience. The judge, an MFA, judged the poems in the complete reverse order of the people! I know the MFA's will say that's because the people don't understand craft. I say it is because the MFA's don't understand people.

    I am really saddened by the state of today's poetry. Get the airheads out of it and give it back to the people.

  2. Hi Anonymous,

    Your comments remind me of some things Conrad DioDato (whose name I may be misspelling) made when he read the manuscript of the article. I will say that comparing the great poets of the past with a fairly random sampling of poets writing now is probably not a fair test -- it's like comparing the greatest hits of an old band with whatever you find on a top 40 station now -- one set is pre-filtered, the other isn't. I mean, there was terrible poetry being written in 1830, but we've let most of it pass out of print.

    As for academe controlling the poetry press -- well, there's some truth in that, but less and less as self-publishing, online publishing, etc. come along. Academe has a big role in prestige, though, and that's probably not ideal. Then again, I don't know what would be ideal.

    If the dichotomy is "airheads" vs. "the people," of course one would be on the side of the people. But I really don't think that's a fair picture. Also, there's the question of what "the people" (however defined) wants. In some times and places, they do want poetry -- the article goes on to examine what those kinds of conditions have been. Generally, they're times and places and conditions that we wouldn't want to live in (repressive states, places with limited reading publics, premodern societies, etc). But I won't bore you with the whole argument here.



  3. Anonymous said:

    >To write in double meanings today is just as bad as trying to imitate old English in a current poem.

    Though it might not be bad at all to revive some of the authentically arriere-gardiste poetics of those "Old English" and Norse guys! Here's Eliot Weinberger on the Vikings, at the end of an essay where he more or less takes a battle axe to the prim and proper prosodies of the New Formalists:

    [....] I'm sorry, but these Rebel Angels [title of a New Formalist anthology] are wimps, café Republicans measuring out their lives in coffee spoons that keep changing size. For real formalism, we must go to the Old Formalism, to the days when forms were forms and form had nothing to do with etiquette. We must go back, that is, to the Vikings:

    Viking formalism meant, for example, that to write a mere epitaph of ordinary statements and sentiments for a tomb -- such as "Here lies a warrior famed for his virtue. Denmark will never know a more honorable sea-captain, or one stronger in battle" -- one began with a common stanza form, such as the dróttkvatt.
    This stanza form had eight lines, broken into two half-stanzas of four lines, each expressing a single thought, that were, in turn, divided into two couplets. Each line had six syllables; only three could be stressed (and Old Norse, as one can imagine, had genuine stresses). The first line of each couplet had to have two stressed syllables that began with the same sound, which was also the sound of the first stressed syllable in the next line. (The other stressed syllables could not be alliterate.) The two stressed alliterative syllables in the first line could not rhyme; but the first stressed alliterative syllable in the second line had to rhyme with another syllable in the same line to which it was not alliterative.
    The word order was completely unlike that of prose. For example, the structure of a normal prose sentence of 16 words (taking 1, 2, 3, etc., as the words in their proper prose order) looks like this in a relatively simple half-stanza:

    2 4 5 3
    1 8 9 6 7
    12 10 13 14
    11 15 16

    In a more complex poem, poetic syntax is further stretched by fragmenting and reassembling the clauses. For example, back to the sea-captain and the first half-stanza. ("Here lies a warrior famed for his virtue . . . ") The poet employs a kenning, or epithet, for warrior ("the one who carried out the work of Þrudr, goddess of battles"), and the whole sentence reads literally: "Under this mound is hidden the one who carried out the work of Þrudr, goddess of battles, whom the greatest virtues accompanied; most men knew that." (Though the Old Norse only has 15 words.)
    The poem (keeping the literal English prose syntax) breaks this into something like:

    Under this mound whom the greatest
    most men knew that virtues
    accompanied the one who carried out the work of Þrudr
    goddess of battles is hidden

    The pattern of clauses is:

    1 3
    4 3
    3 2
    2 1

    This was merely a tombstone epitaph, not a particularly memorable poem. It was written, as all poetry was, in a single line. (The ragged right-hand margin is a by-product of the availability of cheap paper.) There were no spaces between the words. The form of the poem was musically, not visually, evident -- and evident to all its readers or listeners -- and was only one of many such forms, most of them even more complex.
    In a famous Icelandic story in the sagas, Hallbjörn of Þingvellir wanted to compose a poem in praise of a dead poet. He fell asleep on the poet's burial mound and dreamed that the mound opened, a tall man appeared, and said, "There you lie, Hallbjörn of Þingvellir, trying to do something you are incapable of doing -- composing a poem in praise of me." The dead poet then taught Hallbjörn all the forms while he dreamed. They took many years to master, but in the end he wrote his poem.

  4. Thanks for this, Kent. A lot of poets today never learn how much sheer JOY there can be in the "maker's craft." The old poetries have all kinds of inner architecture, both prosodic & thematic - not visible on the surface, but providing structural strength for the leaps & flights. The New Formalists were right to object to contemporary formlessness, but I think they erred, as Weinberger says, in not being formal enough (or subtle enough about form).

  5. Anonymous8:08 PM

    Let me clarify, I don't care if poetry is formal or informal. What I don't like is the lack of soul and the focus on technical craft. Formal poetry can have soul. The lack of soul that I am speaking of shows even in your responses here. You are all so focused on the MFA learned terms like New Formalists, or whatever. The "reader" doesn't know these terms. They don't have MFA's and shouldn't need one to understand the poetry. BTW, I do have an advanced terminal degree, not that that should matter, but I often feel like the poetry today is from some other planet.

    I like contemporary and old poetry, not just "tunes from the 70's." For instance, I love Billy Collins because he is clear and says what he means instead of trying to put it in some sort of code. I love Pablo Neruda too, because the soul shines through his work.

    What is being written today, for the most part, is fast food and it doesn't stick with you. With the exception of very few like Collins, for instance. I want emotion and soul.

    I know there are tons of bad poets in any time and place. I know we need a way to cut through the junk to get to the gems. With a huge world, that is hard.

    How do we give poetry back to the people? I don't believe we have to have some sort of oppressed society. I am a child of the 70's. A lot of people read and bought Rod McKuen for instance. We could understand him.

    Leonard Cohen, for example, is an excellent poet with soul. We can usually understand him. Dr. Suess and Shel Silverstein appeal to the people because they can understand them.

    Yes, poems need to be crafted, but too much crafting chills the soul right out of a poem much the way fast food has engineered the taste right out of food.

    Go back and look at the UTube videos on old black jug bands from the 20's and 30's and pure country music from that time. It was often simplistic, but it was pure, soulful and full of life. It is beautiful now and such a great resource for us to understand that time! I think you'll see what I am talking about.

    How can MFA programs get out of the way of the soul while helping poets to improve their craft? I don't know all the answers. I just know some of the problems. :)

    I appreciate you guys listening and I know that you care deeply about poetry too. I would just like to enjoy buying poetry again, like I used to, when I could understand what was being said.

  6. An understanding of the difficulties involved in really old forms separates the best of the Old Formalists from those tired targets the New Formalists. Of course it's easier to disrupt word order for the sake of stanza form when you are composing your poem in an inflected language. Always nice to see "Letter to Lord Byron"! Psyched to see the rest of the book.

  7. I've thought for a few years now that the New Formalists and the Language Poets are two sides of the same coin: because both are focused on surface effects, not on rooted experience. They're both all about language, and not about using language to recreate an experience for the reader. Poetry that evokes, rather than tells. I could go on about that for some time, and have done so on my own blog. It was telling to me that one time I posted a commentary about the possibility of restoring to poetry a kind of soul and resonance, as Anonymous here is calling for, Ron Silliman went out of his way to comment on my blog, to fold what I was trying to get at back into his "School of Quietude" dichotomy. LOL (Well, Ron is less militant about his Us vs. Them attacks these days, it seems to me, so that's a good evolution.)

    All this apocalyptic rhetoric about the death of poetry is both nothing new, and rather appropriate to our times, in which so much rhetoric is apocalyptic, still being so near to the MilleniuM and its psychological fallout. Frank Wilson coined the term "the pornography of despair" to describe the whole range of entertainments, very popular these days in novels and movies, about the end of the world. (Of course, in science fiction, the post-apocalyptic story has been around for awhile; it's only the mainstream literati who seem to think it's anything innovative. One substantial difference between genuine SF and the pornography of despair is that the latter rarely even TRIES to get the science right. LOL ) So we get these blends of old and new, accompanied by old and new arguments.

    I think the first big critique I encountered of MFA programs came in Robert Bly's "American Poetry:Wildness and Domesticity." At the time I found it convincing. Obviously there many other critiques beyond those you cite. At this point, I have to ask if the criticism hasn't created a self-fulfilling prophecy, a certain tinge to expectations and results. People get what they believe to already be there.

    Yet I don't agree that a purely anti-academic or merely "populist" or simply "easy to understand" poetry is any solution. There is always the risk, in a poet like Billy Collins, of a kind of reactionary pandering to the rubes. Personally, although I do like clarity in poetry, I don't therefore hate complexity. Although I do agree that a poetry with heart is more interesting to me than a poetry of the head written by post-graduate students who really haven't had much life-experience yet, especially experience of suffering and loss and love and travel. Those experiences forge our humanity. it's instructive to compare the late-age poems of poets like Stanley Kunitz or Octavio Paz with your average teenage angst journal-poem: the latter tends to be full of philosophical generalities, while the old-age poets tend to find the universal within the particular.

    Similarly, as a composer and poet both, I do tire of the Cult of Cohen and the Cult of Dylan, which take admittedly great singer-songwriters and claim them to be Great Poets. Balderdash. It just doesn't work. Poetry has to work on the page AND in the air, and most song lyrics fail utterly as poetry on the page. I've noted many times that writers/poets have a blind spot about songwriters: they always fail to take into account the truth that it is the synergy of words-AND-music working together that makes for a great song, not just the words alone, and not just the music alone. A song is its own thing, not merely poetry "enhanced" with music. And just try to read a famous song lyric on the page without the familiar tune playing in your mind—further proof that it's the synergy that makes it happen.


    Anonymous said:
    You are all so focused on the MFA learned terms like New Formalists, or whatever. The "reader" doesn't know these terms.

     Does one not need to think in order to experience the joys and tragedies of life?
    Are not the greatest artists (poets and otherwise) both thinkers and livers of life?

    American society (and world society) needs to be better educated. . . . Quality education needs to be widespread—not to the effect that esoteric terms from within isolated expert domains can be learned by everyone, but so that their underlying reason for being can be taken on in virtue of a widely shared ability to understand the impetus for domain specific jargons; so that armed with comprehensive critical eyes and deep views of our historical existence, such terminology is no longer a barrier to communication by larger populations who can enjoy and learn from literature at similar magnitudes by which they enjoy and learn from film and music, equipped with technology that allows them immediate access to infinite streams of jargon suitable for particular inquiries also enabled by a deeply embedded accoutrement of quality education. . . . Furthermore, if we can imagine and put into place a new education from the earliest years up—whereby primary, secondary and tertiary levels are connected to life and who a person is, and as coupled with a foundation of higher order thinking skills (knowing how to think and reflect on that thinking as it intersects with the rainbow of life)—then the negative MFA associations such as “literature is read only by those who write it,” can be jettisoned and replaced by a positive MFA Effect enhanced by such a reformed education system that is a model for a new world society whereby a majority of our world’s people are functioning at a higher literary level, both writing and reading at higher and wider levels.
    (continued in next post)

  9. The cliché that we must guide more of our world’s people in becoming highly literate if we want to change our world for the better is not a futile idealism, and its concise exegesis as a synopsis is contained in part in the above appraisal. In this way we can synthesize dichotomous views (the polar views so often what is detrimental in our “pop” American, surfeit and spilling over into more than just traditional “pop” genres) and see that writers producing literature for themselves to read is not a symptom of the death of literature and the “poetry” category, but actually a forecaster of a possible healthier future wherein many more of us are writers and readers of literature, of life.
    When one observes our information age as it evolves, with web 2.0 and with all the blogging going around, we can interpret such knowledge in instances of isolation or with a fuller view of our contemporary existence: that the form of our doings today actually makes it that more of us are reading and writing—i.e, we’ve been expressing ourselves in electronic mail forms quite consistently for at least a decade now. The trick is to break down the expert domains of subject specific driven learning trends, and create a more transdisciplinary education which champions thinking that really thinks with hearts and minds making diverse connections from the earliest ages on, revealing the synergistic complexities of our lives in elegant (not so simple) ways something like Google, for better and for worse—for better.

    ^Also, we should be careful not to conflate what may seem like (or actually be) the obscure craft of poetry with the investigation of existence through language, which may appear obstuse but is always of multiple layers and requiring an investment of thinking time. You can want poetry to be for the people, but if the people do not think and reflect about life on multiple levels and across domains which are traditionally viewed as distinct. . . if they cannot see language in life, then it is the people who must be described in terms contiguous with their deficiencies in fulfilling their potential to breach their own surface(s).

  10. Hi Tom,

    I'm not sure I entirely follow you, and I don't think there's only one kind of reader (who doesn't know the term "New Formalist"). I also don't think that going to an MFA program is the only way to learn about that term. But on your further point, that education is good and should be more widespread -- well, I don't think you'll find many people to argue against you there.

    All best,


  11. Anonymous2:01 PM

    Your essay in The Monkey & the Wrench is excellent, Bob--bravo! An excellent critique of recent theories about the death of poetry-- The whole essay is great, but I gotta say: your footnote on p. 22...? One of the funniest footnotes ever. Cheers!

  12. Thanks, Mike! I've been meaning to write to say I enjoyed your piece as well. Also, this is the first time I've received praise for a footnote I wrote -- maybe I've finally discovered my true metier!


  13. why don't you argue against poetry mattering?

  14. Hi Ovaut

    Why don't I argue against poetry mattering? Well, to do that I'd have to believe it shouldn't matter. I actually don't have an opinion on whether it should or shouldn't matter. And I don't think I know enough about what it does for whom to have an opinion.

    I put that comment up because I didn't want the argument I was going to make to be misconstrued.


  15. I really like the way "The Discursive Situation" sets the lawn for the collection as a whole. I hope a lot of people read it!

  16. Thanks, John! And congratulations on the book -- you and Mary have done a great job (and so did the designer).


  17. dear B: that's a good answer; i admire its cynicism and defer to it. of course you wouldn't conduct an argument about poetry's mattering either way in the interest of the attainment of the truth. your motivation to do that is vastly likelier to originate in discrete convictions about whether it 'should'. the only sensible answer is -- of necessity -- 'it depends; but it matters to me.'