Against Defending Poetry

"The Sack of Rome..." by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre

Along with poems entitled “Ars Poetica,” essays entitled, “In Defense of Poetry,” or some variation on that theme, have circulated for decades. It occurs to me that the idea that poetry needs defending is as much in error as the idea that the Earth needs saving. In truth, if we humans sully our revolving petri dish of a planet so as to make it uninhabitable, it is not the Earth that will pay the ultimate price. In a small matter of perhaps a few billion years, the planet is likely to recover from its unfortunate little human experiment. So, really, it is ourselves we save by taking care of our environment.

Likewise, I believe that poetry is the natural expression of a healthy society. So, it is not that we need to defend poetry to the society in which we find ourselves, but that we must strive to remember our society to poetry’s importance. And yet, as much as I know that poetry has, in fact, “saved” me in my life, I do not believe that it is poetry’s job to “save” the world in which I live.

I often wonder about the poets who lived in the end times of a civilization. Where are the Roman poets who wrote just before the empire’s corrupt system of taxation and conscription precipitated its demise? Or the Mayan priests who writ large the ancient lore while their intricate and untenable corn bureaucracies starved their people to death? These bards are conspicuously unremembered by history.

Yet, no doubt, they existed. And perhaps, in their way, they made equivalent efforts to bring their people back to an understanding of the beauty and power of using language to transcends language. Before the Visigoths incinerated their scrolls, or their stone inscriptions crumbled, they, too, may have found a kind of personal salvation in the way a well-made poem can embrace human contradiction. Though words alone may have been insufficient to defend them from hostilities within or without, I know poetry is at once an act of courage, and, as Keats said, “comes … as naturally as the leaves to a tree.”

It requires no justification, no explanation, no defense.