“The Trouble with Poetry,” by Charles Simic

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“The Trouble with Poetry,” by Charles Simic, appeared in the Winter 1997 issue of MQR.

The only thing poetry has always been good for is to make children hate school and jump with joy the day they no longer have to look at another poem. The whole world is in complete agreement on that subject. No one in their right mind ever reads poetry. Even among the literary theorists nowadays it is fashionable to feel superior to all literature and especially poetry. That some people still continue to write it is an oddity that belongs in some Believe It or Not column of the daily newspaper.

When they praised the tribal gods and heroes and glorified their wisdom in war, poets were tolerated, but with the emergence of lyric poetry and the poet’s obsession with the self, everything changed. Who wants to hear about the lives of nobodies while great empires rise and fall? All that stuff about being in love, smooching and having to part as the day breaks and the rooster crows, is at best laughable. School teachers, clergymen, and other policemen of virtue have always seen eye to eye with the philosophers. No model of ideal society since Plato has ever welcomed lyric poets, and for plenty of good reasons. Lyric poets are always corrupting the young, making them choke in self-pity and indulge in revery. Dirty sex and disrespect for authority is what poets have been whispering into their ears for ages.

“If he writes verses, kick him out,” a new father was counseled two thousand years ago in Rome. That hasn’t changed a bit. Parents still prefer their children to be taxidermists and tax collectors rather than poets. Who can blame them? Would you want your only daughter to be a hostess in a sleazy night club or a poet? That’s a tough one.

Even true poets detest poetry. “There are things that are more important beyond all this fiddle,” said our own Marianne Moore. She had a point. Some of the most idiotic things human beings have ever uttered are to be found in poetry. Poetry, as a rule, has embarrassed both individuals and nations.

Poetry is dead, the enemies of poetry have shouted happily for centuries and they still do. Our classic poets, our trendy professors have told us, are nothing but a bunch of propagandists for the ruling classes and male oppression. These same ideas, once promulgated by the jailers and murderers of poets in the Soviet Union, are now a big hit in American Universities. Aestheticism, humor, eroticism and all the other manifestations of the free imagination must be censored. Poetry, that foolish diversion for the politically correct, has mostly ceased to exist for our educated classes. Nevertheless, as if to spite them, poetry keeps being written.

The world is always looking to reward conformity. Every age has its official line on what is real, what is good and what is bad. A dish made up of dishonesty, ignorance, and cowardice served every evening with a serious mien and an air of highest integrity by the TV news is the ideal. Literature, too, is expected to go along with that. Your tribe is always trying to reform you and teach you manners. The poet is that kid who, standing in the corner with his back turned to his schoolmates, thinks he is in paradise.

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Ceramic tile panel: “Reciting Poetry in a Garden.” First quarter 17th century. Stonepaste; polychrome glaze within black wax resist outlines (cuerda seca technique). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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