Why Write Poetry?: Modern Poets Defending Their Art
Jeannine Johnson

About the Author:
Jeannine Johnson received her BA from Haverford College and her PhD from Yale University. She has taught at Yale and Wake Forest University, and, since 1999, she has been a Preceptor in Expository Writing at Harvard University. She has contributed articles on modern and contemporary poetry and poetics to such publications as the Wallace Stevens Journal, The Explicator, the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, A Companion to Twentieth-Century American Poetry, the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, and Contemporary Southern Writers. In addition to poetry, her research interests include American literature, Romantic literature, the history of literary traditions, literature and technology, and ekphrasis.

Poets have long been defending poetry in prose, and essays by Sidney, Shelley, and others are a familiar and important part of the Anglo-American literary tradition. This book identifies and examines a related genre—the verse defense of poetry—which shares the same impulse that has led to the composition of prose essays: namely, the desire to protect poetry from its detractors and to promote its value as a vital human endeavor.

In the last century or so, this impulse to engage questions of poetry’s value in poems has become increasingly widespread, and it has dominated the careers of at least five poets: H.D., Wallace Stevens, W. H. Auden, Adrienne Rich, and Geoffrey Hill. Though these poets espouse very different aesthetic principles, they, like many of their contemporaries, have repeatedly turned to apology in their verse. At first glance this seems an odd gesture, given that the readers and writers of poetry are those who least need convincing of poetry’s worth. But questioning poetry in verse is a form of lyric introspection that is productive and well-suited for a modern poet. In an age in which the general public attitude towards poetry may be characterized as one of indifference, defense helps these authors make a claim for poetry’s cultural relevance, as well as for its private profits.

This book amply demonstrates that apology is a prominent operation in modern verse, and thereby connects two traditions that have until now been treated as quite distinct: poetry itself and prose defenses of that art. It also reveals a close intellectual relationship between modern poetry and the distant past, since many of the questions that drive the production of poetry remain the same as they were in Aristotle’s time. In addition, the fact of apology in poetry attests to a certain desire on the part of poets to claim a more firmly established place in the larger culture. Acknowledging this enervates some critiques of modern poetry as being deliberately iconoclastic or self-indulgent; while attending to this defensive mode does require sensitivity to aesthetic approaches to poetry, it need not preclude or even dominate other literary-critical approaches and instead could well enhance them.

ISBN 0-8386-4105-9, $55.00

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