The Paris Review

Does Poetry Have Street Cred?

Major Jackson photo: © Erin Patrice O’Brien.

Does American poetry suffer from an abundance of artistic dignity and not enough street credibility? It’s possible. When I asked a friend, a terrific prose writer, why she seems to have a slight disdain for poetry, she replied, “It’s too elitist, like walking through a beautiful forest in which I know not where to look, much less know what I am searching for. If I don’t get it as a reader, then I feel like an idiot and somehow not worthy of the form.” In years past, I would have fretted and dismissed her remarks as garden-variety philistinism, but my friend is admirably sensitive, a brilliant scholar, Ivy educated, and not someone prone to make trivializing remarks without great consideration.

Nor is she alone. For the better part of my life, at dinner parties, at neighborhood gatherings, or on the sidelines of my children’s sporting events, I have had to confront the incredulity of ordinarily thoughtful, even erudite people who professed a similar antagonism toward poetry. An English department chair, a Renaissance scholar relishing a moment of candor, with tapenade and a flute of Dom Ruinart in hand, admitted to me that he is “terrified” of poetry. The roots of such fears and anxieties have been the subject of many essays, and as a result there are as many defenses as there are quarrels with poetry, the most recent being Ben Lerner’s humorous and insolently titled The Hatred of Poetry.

Three decades ago, my friend Sven Birkerts explained, almost prophetically, that poets write in an age of great distraction brought on by society’s materialist compulsions, and

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