The Power of Poetry

Stephen Burt at Slate writes,

“Is there a Howl for our own time, a cultural creation that explains, excites, antagonizes, and polarizes a wide swath of America? It could not be a poem. Recent poets and poems have become notorious (Amiri Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America”), or widely popular (“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple”), or critically acclaimed, but no poem has accomplished all three at once, nor blew open its moment, as Howl did. Films and records can still attain succès de scandale—think of Kids, Brokeback Mountain, or Slim Shadybut a poem on a page, or a book of poems, cannot.”

Sounds like a worthy challenge.

The problem with Burt’s assertion is that it is false, as far as anyone knows. That it may also be true as far as anyone knows is irrelevant, since the point is that no one can know, contrary to Burt’s flat assertion.

All it would take would be one lightning-in-a-bottle book of accomplished and resonant, say, antiwar poems to begin to be circulated among US troops in Iraq and then all across the US, and then you just might have it. And any number of scenarios with any variety of focus can be envisioned. (And, at the least, this sort of thing, as Burt notes, is seen to some considerable extent in certain lyric forms today, in rap not least, as well as in other art forms.)

The power of poetry — political, social, cultural, aesthetic.

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