828: Against Poetry

828: Against Poetry

828: Against Poetry


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

Once, I was seated next to a professor of geology on a flight, grounded before takeoff for two hours thanks to inclement weather. After pleasant exchanges about where we live and our professions—he was headed to California to research the San Andreas fault, I said, “I am a poet”— he asked, with immense incredulity, “Why?” I scrambled for some words as a rejoinder but sounded unconvincing even to myself.

The truth is I, too, have questioned poetry’s value, and my role in making it. I don’t know what to do when people ask “What kind of poetry do you write?” Picture me, wide-eyed blinking with a fake smile, like I was thrust onto a red carpet. Or what to do when someone states with mild revulsion: “I don’t get poetry.” Or, in the company of a contrarian, with a disdain for the here and now, asserts: “Poetry written today does not hold a candle to the poetry of the past.”

I just read such an editorial . . . oh well, his loss.

It all makes me want to throw up my Wakanda-like shield. Today’s fantastic discursive poem, however, takes up a different defense. It feels like it was written out of a similar self-interrogation, but listen to how it sharply turns from contemplating poetry’s limitations to underscoring poetry’s value.

Against Poetry
by Diane Seuss

A poem, unlike
a living being, cannot 
perceive you and, in 
perceiving you, grant you 
reality. If it sleeps
with you, it cuts you.
It runs a few
degrees cooler than room 
temperature. A love poem 
does not love you. Or 
does not necessarily love 
you. A love poem faces 
outward. It performs
love adequately. Lately,
I’ve wondered about poetry’s 
efficacy. It’s like doubting
a long romance, or romance 
itself, the essence of it.
Fearsome, to doubt 
your life’s foundation.
I’ve also wondered about 
painting. What distinguishes 
a good or great painting, 
paintings I’ve loved, from 
illustration? Lately everything 
seems illustrative to me,
as if the whole world 
is a cunning metaphor.
A young painter once 
cautioned me not to bring
a literary framework to visual art. 
A sane admonition, I think.
Maybe what distinguishes 
art from illustration
is its uselessness. Art, 
useless at its core,
but not valueless. And 
what is the correlation
between painting and poetry? 
What makes a poem merely 
illustrative and what elevates it 
to an essential artfulness,
i.e., uselessness? I know
I am using the old language 
here. “Merely.” “Elevates.”
I am in an antiquated room,
its fixtures, dust-covered 
and ornate. Furniture,
built at the behest of another 
era, from a principle of design 
that forefronts beauty,
is delicate, as if balanced on a foal’s 
trembling legs. Maybe to live 
within a poem is to entrap oneself
in an architecture constructed upon 
outmoded theories of composition. 
It’s possible there is an undiscovered 
room or house, or a structure 
somewhere I don’t yet have
the language for. An academy of silences.
A cathedral of cross-purposed 
voices. A posthuman spaciousness 
filled only with a reemerged 
species of butterflies. A catacomb 
of cluster flies. Whatever it will be, 
it will be new, filled
with its own mystifying absurdities, 
and likely beyond me.
This body may not be built 
for it. Mine is the kind
of body you drag around 
town on a leash, with a choke 
chain. You don’t love it,
but it’s yours to contend with, 
though it compresses your 
soul. When did it begin
to compress rather than 
liberate my soul? Early, 
but I do remember
when it was my soul’s instrument,
indistinguishable from
my soul. I could sit on the front 
stoop and the whole world 
came streaming in through
the structures of my senses. 
Maybe the body is the soul’s 
metaphor. Maybe to escape it 
is to escape the service 
economy. To dissolve analogy. 
Attain uselessness.

"Against Poetry" by Diane Seuss. Used by permission of the poet. "Against Poetry" first appeared online at The Yale Review.