In the latest issue of Rattle, Timothy Green interviews Meena Alexander, an Indian-born poet whose latest book, Atmospheric Poetry, is forthcoming in 2017.
Intrigued by an essay and lecture Alexander wrote for the Yale Political Union, Green started his interview with the same topic she tackled in New Haven: What is the use of poetry?
Meena’s answer? “We have poetry so we do not die of history.” In a subsequent poem on the question, she followed that line with, “And I have no idea what that meant.” But it sounded good, and if you think about it long enough, it might even pass muster as an answer. The answer, even.
Me, I’m just happy the answer to “What is the use of poetry?” isn’t “There is none.” In America, some may wonder. Although there is a rich poetic tradition here, it seems to have grown without the sunshine and water of a vast number of readers. Unless, of course, you’re talking Henry, Wadsworth, and Longfellow, three poetic rock stars of their day. But Whitman and such? The leaves and the grass loved him, but not many of his contemporary readers.
Meena Alexander goes on to tackle the question seriously and does yeoman duty, drawing links with music and sound and motion. Still, it got me thinking about Ireland and Russia and other countries where readers have a more eclectic diet in books. They read fiction and nonfiction with the same gusto as Americans. But unlike Americans, they have a healthier appetite for poetry.
Here in the States we dispense with questions like Meena’s and focus on ones like “Is Poetry Dead?” Or we move on to the follow-up question, “Does Anybody Really Care?” We even have authors who pass on writing poetry and instead make (more) money by writing poetry’s obituary. Ka-ching!
So, yes. It was nice to see some humor and courage in Meena Alexander’s attempts to explain what we thought we would never have to–the “why” of poetry. And any poet could identify with her honesty as she spoke. Beating the bushes for poetry readers is hard even for established, name-brand poets:
“The thing about being a poet is that you’re very lucky if two people are reading your stuff.” I think she means “in the world at any one time,” too. “You’re reading my stuff now,” she tells her interviewer, “and I’m deeply grateful, but it’s so touch and go, even for the one who makes it. A very iffy art. On the other hand it has this extraordinary life, in the sense that a poem can reach you from thousands of miles away, and from centuries ago. We read Sappho in translation, or Homer, or Kalidasa.”
By the end of the interview, I found myself very interested in reading her work, both previously published and forthcoming. She speaks my language (even though we hail from different cultures) and clearly understands what poets are up against. Without readers, a poet is that tree falling in the wilderness. It makes its noise for itself.