In Praise of Not Great Poetry

I’m about to make a point that seems to me to be nearly self-evident, yet I feel the need to make it because I sense a conflicting opinion is the premise behind some commonly made judgements about poetry.

Poetry of course is only one of many arts. In our time, it is one of the arts that feels it needs to justify itself more often. Poetry feels like it’s neglected, marginalized, underappreciated, and there are reasons for it to think so.

Does music do this? One can find defenses for the value of music, yes, but these cries are not the same. Similarly, the other arts that use words: prose of various kinds, cinema, live drama—people will defend their value, but not with the elephant of marginalized dread that advocates of poetry feel they must deal with.

Why is that? I’m going to use a loaded word to describe the cause, one that is likely not quite right, but one that I can’t find a short pithy substitute for: snobbery. There may be a better word. I mean, really, it’s more at a misapplied kind of elitism, but elitism is an even more misunderstood and misused word.

Roman Hruska

Roman Hruska. Is this is a picture of a great modern poet, or a leading voice of
“The New Criticism” who established the 20th Century ideals of great poetry?


Roman L. Hruska was a doctrinaire Midwestern conservative who served in Congress in the middle of the 20th Century. His place in history is constrained to one quote. Hruska’s infamous rhetorical thrust, meant to defend a Supreme Court appointment before the Senate for confirmation, was so mockable that it helped defeat that candidate.

I rise today knowing that what I’m about to say risks the same fate.

Here’s what Hruska said about Harold Carswell, who as candidate for the High Court, had been attacked as a mediocre jurist. “Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance?”

That too is a misunderstanding of elitism. It is elitism to want the best leaders, the best judges. It is also elitism to desire all kinds of difficult and challenging arts. Given that elitism is sometimes thrown around as an insult in our century, let me be clear, I support that idea. It’s good to desire the best, to even take risks for the best, particularly in the arts, which have fewer direct consequences, and therefore can serve as a “research and development” department for outlooks and thoughts that we may want to experiment with a bit before we apply them to surgery or criminal law.

What does this have to do with poetry’s pervasive feeling of marginalization?

In the last century, poetry continued on an artistic and critical path that diverged from the other musical and literary arts. When any serious critical and institutional focus on the poetic arts were called for, poetry divested itself of all of it’s non-elite branches and expressions. Song lyrics? Not poetry. Popular poems, the kind once memorized by schoolchildren? Not real  poetry. Humorous poems? Humor, not poetry. Verse that is predominantly interesting because it’s musical speech? No. You don’t understand, poetry is about complex language examining difficult to express matrixes of experience. Thoughts and experiences from marginalized or particular speakers? Well, nice that they can speak up these days, but, please, it’s not poetry. Hip Hop/rap? Oh, come on! Get serious.

I can agree with what some literary critics and gatekeepers observe about these forms of expression, but not their judgement.

I too can be bored and uninterested in things that may fall into those “It’s not  poetry” bins. I can also be bored and uninterested in some page poetry which is credentialed and endorsed as serious mainstream literary poetry—you know, the stuff that’s poetry.  I can even change my mind about what I find interesting and worth my attention. I see new things in the work. I live new experiences. And sometimes when I’m listening to some musical speech, I’m seeking a pleasure or relief that’s hard to detail as criteria for greatness.

What if we considered all narrative prose that wasn’t a contender for the greatest novel ever written as, well, not prose. I enjoy a detective novel once in a while. Short stories can be sublime. Should I remind myself as I enjoy them that they are inferior in some criteria for a great novel? I find interest in some of the most austere or minimal modern serious music, but if every time I hear a good three-minute tune that makes a conventional set of chords seem inevitable all over again, should I feel ashamed that I think that’s music?

Can what is “not great” inform something greater? Many of the early Modernists seemed to think so—but it need not be applied like a newspaper clipping to a cubist collage or a folk tune to a symphony, it can be part of a vital continuum of human expression without needing elevation or even a judgment of hierarchy over all else.

I believe it’s a mistake for poetry, so concerned with it’s potential vital contribution to human culture, to feel that it can best survive by severing its cerebral head, leaving its ass and its elbow to wander around as “not poetry.”

5 thoughts on “In Praise of Not Great Poetry

  1. Very very interesting food for thought. I feel like a lot of people are turned off by the mere ‘idea’ of poetry–like it makes them think back to some bad English class they had as a kid where they were made to analyse some stodgy verse and they somehow grew to hate it. Which really is too bad. Because I kind of think of all art as poetry first, blossoming into something else. (Like, I never wrote lyrics. I wrote prose poems that became lyrics.) One of the great things about your blog is the breadth of poetry you cover and the new creative lights you are able to shed on words already written. It’s all poetry–especially the final line of this post where you leave your ‘not poetry’ to slouch towards Bethlehem to be born.


  2. Thanks again for reading/listening! And thanks especially for noting that I don’t want to present just one kind of poetry (or music) here.

    I may need a follow up post to complete this thought. My thinking is that the other adjacent arts of prose and music better avoided the trap of “only the highest level (and we’ll decide the what criteria make up the levels) deserves to be classed as an expression of our art.” Perhaps I should have avoided “snobbery” as name for this, as it implies motives, maybe the mistake is more at “misapplied elitism”.

    Because prose and music avoided this trap, their arts can contain a wider variety of expression, a with that a wider variety of subjects expressed in more varied ways.

    I’m intrigued by your thought that all art may be poetry first for you. I have moments when I think it all starts with music, but then I can’t separate poetry from music, so even pieces of my own that start with words with no chords or melodies apprehended yet, I’m hearing patterns and relationships in sound and thought that I think of as musical.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I see–and yes, I agree that’s definitely true about poetry–especially back when it was really specifically constrained to particular verse and meter constructions. Now perhaps not so much, but poetry still carries that weight of elitism-past.

      I think the idea that all art starts as poetry for me probably came from my late teens when I first read Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’. Shelley was specifically addressing poets, but I felt his words applied to all contemporary art forms (so maybe things are meeting in the middle?). I had always considered myself ‘an artist’ (primarily as an actor), but reading Shelley’s words was one of the first times I really thought about what being an artist actually *meant*. But again, that still comes from the conditioning that tells us that poetry is the highest artistic pinnacle from whence all other art trickles down–maybe a very 19th century mindset.

      Of course, all art is fluid and relating and each artist will have their own starting point. As you indicate above, poetry and music are pretty much inseparable and it’s sort of like the chicken and the egg!

      Anyway, my thoughts are getting muddled. Here a bit I wrote about Shelley and art a little while ago that is mildly relevant perhaps:

      Liked by 1 person

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