Why poetry matters, by Jay Parini

Poems matter, that much is clear; but there's no rhyme and little reason here

In 1989, the American poet Dana Gioia lobbed a grenade into the cosy world of the US creative-writing industry. His essay, "Can Poetry Matter?", spoke wittily and despairingly of "poets" graduating from courses who teach and produce fresh multitudes of versifiers, publish in the same magazines and reverently review one another's books, most written in the same chopped-up free verse that has been the favoured form in the States since the 1950s.

Jay Parini admits in the opening line to his new book that "poetry doesn't matter to most people". Unfortunately, he doesn't tell us why, or why it should, or what we should do about it. He gives us a tour of poetic theory, from Aristotle to Derrida, and chapters on metaphor, voice and language. He offers worthy sentiments. "The language of poetry can save us": how, and from what? "Poetry is useful because it draws us closer to the earth." But one of the reasons why people have turned away – only a couple of generations since Dylan Thomas and Robert Frost could pack halls in the US – is given by Parini's admiring quotation from Mary Oliver: "There isn't a place/ in this world that doesn't/ sooner or later drown/ in the indigos of darkness". The poem, Parini says, "invites comparison with such poems as John Donne's 'Death Be Not Proud'." It may do, but not to its advantage.

So why does poetry matter? One reason is that many people still enjoy some sorts of poetry. The one sort they have never liked is the sort they are told to like. Parini falls into the error of assuming that "free" verse is somehow more genuine than formal. But some of the most gifted of American poets (Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht and Gioia himself) have used the controlled music and passion of formal measures. None is mentioned here.

It is obvious that Parini has a great love of poetry and regrets that more people do not share it, but his book might have had more impact as a polemical essay prefacing a powerful anthology of modern poems. Not to despair. Shakespeare still fills theatres and some contemporary poets have large and enthusiastic followings. The trouble, particularly in academic America, is that too many poets decided long ago that what they did was not for the general public, and that public, silently, but with some sorrow, agreed and went away.