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  • Jan Sand

    I write poetry because I enjoy setting up a relational system of using wordswhere the sounds of the words function to relate ideas in formalities that can be amusing and surprising. I enjoy the problems of doing it and if other people enjoy reading it I like that but it is not at all necessary to my enjoyment. Poetry helps me think about things in ways different than prose. No doubt some people make money at it but to believe it is a way to make money seems to be a terrible delusion and takes the fun out of doing it.

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Our teacher said: “Poetry serves the same purpose as heavy metal music.”

One of the students said: “So, a recreational drug.”

Teacher replied: “Nothing more.” He gave a look and added: “Also nothing less.”

Comment: Everybody wants to have it both ways. Poetry is something small; poetry is something big. Watch me deflate it; then I’ll puff it up. But I want to ask all of you: Do you need poetry to be big? Do you need it to be small? Will you stop doing it if it’s small? Will you only do it if it’s small?



One of the students said: “The chief business of poetry is the dramatization of states of mind, the better that these states can be studied and savored.” Somebody asked: “What about didactic poetry?”

“Don’t be fooled by didactic poetry.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean no one actually thinks didactic poetry teaches people anything. The purpose of such poetry is to dramatize the pedagogue’s state of mind.”

Comment: Everyone is an ornithologist. We want poets to be ducks. We go down to the pond and look at the ducks, and we come back joking about what the ducks “taught” us. We don’t want anybody to actually teach us anything.



Somebody asked a foreigner: “Why do you read all that old British poetry?” The foreigner said: “To improve my English.”

This exchange was reported to our teacher, who commented: “That is why I read it, too.” Someone objected: “What about… [naming a poet whose English is perfectly nondescript]—?” Our teacher said: “Oh, her! Her I only read so I can sit in judgment.”

Comment: The foreigner wins.


A student said: “Our former teacher told us the purpose of reading poetry was to learn the names of birds and plants, and to enable one to understand allusions. What do you think of that?” Someone cut in: “Our former teacher must not have been taking into account poetry written in the last fifty years.” Yet another person added: “I have never seen the harm in not catching allusions. People are always overjoyed to explain their references. Aren’t you actually doing people a favor by not catching their allusions?”

Comment: A sage once said he had nothing against elephants but he did not want to see them conducting classes in zoology. This, by way of saying that being Russian does not qualify one to teach the language. The humor depends on the hint that being Russian actually disqualifies one.

It’s the same with these students. Their conception of being poets excludes their ever teaching or understanding poetry.



A notorious know-it-all was saying that people are foolish to think they can illuminate poetry by means of diagrams and lists. She said:

The Rāmāyaṇa‘s Bālākaṇḍa mentions nine “flavors” or “moods”: the funny, the sexy, the pitiful, the wrathful, the heroic, the frightening, the disgusting, the fantabulous and the peaceful. Nowadays, people come along every twenty minutes and regard themselves as geniuses because they are able to add a tenth flavor. But any monkey could come up with a tenth, eleventh and twelfth flavor, if only the monkey were not awed by the fact there are so many things on the list already!

Comment: The know-it-all wins. If she can be forgiven for setting herself up as Robin Hood, and setting you up as the Sheriff of Nottingham, she will prove a real help in the end. She would have been good to have around when prosody was falling into disuse and people started “explaining” what the different forms and meters are good for. “Pantoums are especially appropriate to nostalgia,” and so on.



A sage made a list of “adorable” things, one item of which was: “A child, whose hair has been cut like a nun’s, is examining something; the hair falls over his eyes, but instead of brushing it away he holds his head to the side.”

A thousand years later, a wise degenerate made a similar list, wherein was included the image of a man’s solid, muscular arm tightly filling a sleeve.

The notorious know-it-all said: “Such lists actually do illuminate poetry.”

Comment: She’s got beyond robbing from the rich and giving to the poor; now she robs from rich and poor alike. It’s back to the ducks.

You’re allowed to be a duck, you’re allowed to be a duck specialist—that is, you’re allowed to be, and you’re allowed to learn, but you’re not allowed to teach.



Somebody asked a cynical male poet: “What are your poems about?” The poet showed his dimples and batted his eyes and said: “Me.”

Another time somebody asked the poet if he thought that, in some sense, he was saving the world. The poet said: “No, no. I think of myself as a kind of folk singer. People are as unlikely to improve their souls by listening to me as they would from listening to robins warbling in a park.”

Comment: I could see someone objecting, “What, is it now known that listening to robins does not improve your soul?” To which the poet would probably reply, “Even if it does, how much improvement can we really be talking about here?” And so things descend into the usual higgling.



Our teacher said: “In poetry, most of what passes for humor these days is just people performing likability.” A student added: “And most of what passes for sentiment is just saying things in the wrong tone of voice.”

Comment: I suppose “performing likability” is mainly a matter of that contrived harmlessness we find in so many male poets these days.

And “saying things in the wrong tone of voice” probably refers to that therapeutic style of writing where one speaks about horrible things in a flat affect (the thing my Nadya calls “female macho”). Supposing I am right, the student was providing the yin to the teacher’s yang, which is elegant. But I see the student’s remark will admit of a number of interpretations.



A sage said: “Poetry gives you an excuse to address a small, peaceably assembled crowd, so you can show off your clothes and your body, or you can indulge in a fantasy that you merit the same kind of attention that pop stars do— that you exercise that kind of fascination. If we are to judge the purpose of poetry by what it does, there you have your answer.”

Comment: The sage was forgetting the moral opportunity a poetry reading offers the audience. Poetry readings, after all, trick us into functioning as—without really being—each other’s enlightened gentle caregivers, providing the schoolhouse space in which the children are allowed to proudly pin up their identical paintings of families, or scrape away at their little violins. Whoever wants to squelch vanity in such situations is in the wrong line of work.



An idiot who was always wrong and who didn’t know anything said: “If we’re talking about power in poetry, I find the most powerful stuff is very impersonal. The Daodejing, the Book of Ecclesiastes—these are powerful. Sermons, in a word.”

Somebody objected: “But sermons are only effective if you think they’re stating absolute truths. Whoever is not a moral know-it-all to begin with is not affected by sermons.”

The idiot replied: “Not so. In fact, the question of truth needn’t come up at all. One needn’t think something is true to consider it useful.”

Comment: Unprejudiced about where to look, the idiot finds an old arrowhead. And occasionally it is the idiot’s dog, Robot, who discovers the caves with the forty-thousand-year-old paintings. People who don’t know anything are underrated.



A student asked: “What about didactic poetry?” Our teacher said: “All I know is that didactic poetry can only affect my morals by making a direct attack on my bad character.” Somebody said: “Is that because you’re so wily you’ll always find a way to deflect any subtle or indirect ploy?”

Our teacher said: “Yes. Unless I am forced to do otherwise, I’ll think the poet is talking about somebody else, not me.”

A student remarked: “I think the opposite is true as well. If a poet puts my full name in a satire, I will think it is me even if it patently isn’t.”

Comment: Who really is confessing and who is bragging here?



Teacher said: “Poetry should not be story time. We have short stories for that.”

Somebody said: “What about Chaucer?”

Teacher replied: “Those aren’t really stories.”

Somebody else said: “What about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—?”

Another person said: “What about Gilgamesh—?”

Teacher said: “Maybe it was possible, a long time ago, before there were short stories. But now we do have stories, so…”

Quotation/Comment: “Pretty soon I wanted to smoke, and asked the widow to let me. But she wouldn’t. She said it was a mean practice and wasn’t clean, and I must try not to do it anymore. That is just the way with some people. They get down on a thing when they don’t know nothing about it. Here she was a-bothering about Moses, which was no kin to her, and no use to anybody, being gone, you see, yet finding a power of fault with me for doing a thing that had some good in it. And she took snuff too; of course that was all right, because she done it herself.”



One of the ones who were genuinely there to learn asked: “Why did Francesco Petrarca’s love poems sweep all through Europe and create hundreds of imitators?” One of the other students spoke up: “For the same reason that once you invent the radio, ten minutes later everyone has a radio.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well, hyperventilating already existed. But not as a lifestyle. Petrarch made it a lifestyle. Be your own tragic figure. Pine away permanently. Prostitute your mighty intellect to a pile of hair. Now do you see?”

“I don’t.”

“Come now! Under those terms, victory was certain…”

Comment: Unpleasant to watch the person who was “genuinely here to learn” toying with the blowhard in this way. That’s why blowhards and know-it-alls are so corrupting. They represent a terrible temptation to the good students.



A guest speaker, tense, defensive, said: “It seems only poets think they ought to serve a higher purpose. This must be the old religious residue. If you ask a ballerina if she is saving the world she just tells you to go away. She’ll say: You go save the world; I’m trying to do something here. Novelists, too. When a novelist starts to worry about this question, he/she stops writing novels. Look at Tolstoy. Yet poets really do seem to think, [etc.].”

Comment: The guest speaker, tense, defensive, wins.



“Why can’t we determine what poetry is for simply by asking what it does?”

“You are overlooking the possibility that it seldom or never does what is intended.”

“But why would we keep doing it if it doesn’t?”

“Because we happen to value the accidental side effects. Feelings and handy phrases we can pilfer.”

Comment: A sage once said that poetry is bound to disappoint, given that it can never deliver the transcendence we are longing for. Our heads are full of ideals, and when the actual poem falls short of those ideals, as it must, naturally we are disappointed.

Someone objected that he had no such ideals in his head, and that he was not looking for transcendence. He said he thought this Theory of Perpetual Disappointment can only have issued from a person lacking the ordinary apparatus for enjoying life.

Someone pointed out that the sage is more or less known to have enjoyed life. The first person said, “Fine! But he says himself he does not enjoy poetry.”

Art credit: Erica Baum

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This essay appears in issue 12 of The Point.
To read the rest of the issue (which features a
symposium on the question “What is poetry for?”)
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  • Kindle
  • Jan Sand

    I write poetry because I enjoy setting up a relational system of using wordswhere the sounds of the words function to relate ideas in formalities that can be amusing and surprising. I enjoy the problems of doing it and if other people enjoy reading it I like that but it is not at all necessary to my enjoyment. Poetry helps me think about things in ways different than prose. No doubt some people make money at it but to believe it is a way to make money seems to be a terrible delusion and takes the fun out of doing it.

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