I’ve been meditating for the past couple of weeks on a recent article in The Atlantic entitled “How Poetry Came to Matter Again.” If you didn’t see it yet, that’s ok. The article is a breezy lope through a half dozen contemporary poets, and it quotes only tiny snatches of their poetry, so it’s really quite impossible to tell from the piece whether their work is any good. From the slender supporting evidence of the article, the way a poet “matters” is by obtaining grants, being appointed to university positions, getting on award lists, and developing a large YouTube following.
Of course, those grants, positions, and awards have been with us for quite some time. These poets “matter,” in contrast to the poets of previous generations, the author tells us approvingly, because “They are immigrants and refugees from China, El Salvador, Haiti, Iran, Jamaica, Korea, Vietnam. They are black men and an Oglala Sioux woman. They are queer as well as straight and choose their personal pronouns with care.” In other words, they are poets who matter because of their identity.
I don’t feel any need to critique the nonsensical assertions of the article (I’ve been choosing my personal pronouns with care for years!), and I don’t know the work of the poets mentioned in it; for all I know, some of them could be quite fine, although the tidbits quoted in the article are uneven. It does trouble me, though, that a magazine which purports to be a champion of culture would give itself over to such shallow assertions. Even The Atlantic feels a need to prove its cutting-edge bona fides, I suppose.
The way that a poem matters – a poet matters – a school of poetry matters – is by actually mattering, across generations and across cultures, by being repeated and quoted in new contexts, spoken by others and taken to heart. Do these poets and poems matter? I don’t know, and no one else does yet, either. For now, I’m going to try to keep my eye on the page and not on the CV entries. Emily Dickinson didn’t have much of a resume, as I recall.