(Jan with poet Stella Nesanovich)
In an issue of the Atlantic in 1991 Dana Gioia asked: "Can Poetry Matter?" His article was the lead essay in his book Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture. If you have somehow or other missed that wonderful essay, please read it here. In summary, the answer is "Yes." Of course. It has to.
Speaking to a poet friend once, I wondered how people live without poetry. Many people, if asked, will probably answer, "Very well, thank you," but I think such an answer comes from lack of understanding what poetry, what all art, is about and is supposed to do for us.
Dana Gioia's philosophy of poetry, simply stated, is that it be accessible to everyone, not only college professors and intellectuals, but plumbers, farmers, homemakers, secretaries, and store clerks. Poetry won't get you out of debt -- ask a poet. A painting won't repair a troubled marriage. A novel won't keep a house out of foreclosure. One thing art will do is show us that we're not alone in our turbulent lives. Our feelings and our losses and gains aren't only our own. So often, if we bother to look, we see them in a poem like "The Lost Garden," a painting like "Girl with a Pearl Earring," or a novel like Cannery Row.
Art doesn't enrich our pocketbooks; it enriches us. I think more people used to understand that. Educators used to grasp and base their teaching on that concept, so that students were prepared not only for the job market, but for life.
The best poetry doesn't live in an ivory tower. Give it a chance, and you'll find out. If you pick up a poem and find it too deep or too dull, put it down and look elsewhere. It doesn't matter if you like Shakespeare or John Donne or Joyce Kilmer. Give poetry a try and see if you get what I'm saying, and what Dana Gioia said better than I.
Jan Rider Newman is a published author whose poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in the New Orleans Review, Louisiana Literature, Oasis Journal, Yellow Flag Press, and Sweet Tea and Afternoon Tales, a 2009 anthology. She earned an M.A. in English and an M.F.A. at McNeese State University. She is a contributor to The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog and owner/editor of Swamp Lily Review.