A friend recently handed me a bumper sticker that reads WHO NEEDS POETRY. A question in the form of a statement. Perhaps it was a subtle nod to Gertrude Stein, our patron saint of contrarian common sense poetics, who thought question marks were ridiculous since everyone can tell when a question is a question. When I was asked by Phong Bui to edit the Critics Page for April (“national poetry month”), an inner voice whispered WHY POETRY NOW. O no, I answered. That’s too overtly blunt, as if one were staring into the gaping maw of the obvious, into all the received ideas and defenses of this most ancient and resilient art, the art that everyone invokes with pious admiration, as abstract as freedom or peace, but one which, it is assumed, few, outside of its legion of practitioners, actually engage, that is, read. Why bother to ask why poetry now. But I am by nature somewhat perverse and often impolitic, in the hope of provoking myself and others to fresh insights or alternative perspectives. So I asked a group of poet friends, colleagues, and former students, to say something about how they think why poetry now, as no poet of any disposition can write without having these particular whys, the why of poetry, the why of now, as part of what undergirds and troubles their (sic) work. Not all whom I asked were able to respond; I am grateful to those who did—three generations!—and to Phong Bui for his generous invitation.
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