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What is the purpose of a poem?

OK, let’s take a break from blogging about economics. OK, I haven’t actually been blogging so much about econ lately, but it just happens that I’m writing this on 19 July, a day after poking a stick into the hornet’s nest by posting “Differences between econometrics and statistics: From varying treatment effects to utilities, economists seem to like models that are fixed in stone, while statisticians tend to be more comfortable with variation” (which in turn was on auto-post as I’d written it a couple months earlier).

As is often the case, I’m on the blog to procrastinate: in this case, my colleagues and I are preparing a new course and there’s tons of important work to be done. I’m getting tired of reading comments on economics and empiricism and so I scooted over to Basbøll’s blog and kicked off a brief comment thread about the academic entertainer Slavoj Zizek. At first I was going to post and continue that discussion here, but I don’t give too poops about Slavoj Zizek, so I followed Basbøll’s blogroll link to “Stupid Motivational Tricks” and right away found something interesting.

The something interesting that I found was a post by Jonathan Mayhew about someone who’s the poet laureate of North Carolina. I had no idea that an individual state would have a poet laureate but it seems like a good idea, a quite reasonable nearly cost-free thing to do, indeed it would be cool to have all sorts of official state art. In reading the post I was mildly irritated by Mayhew’s use of “NC” as a generic replacement for “North Carolina.” The abbreviation is fine in some contexts but I founn it a bit jarring to read, “The literary community of NC . . .” On the other hand, it’s just a goddam blog so I don’t know what I’m supposed to be expecting.

But I’m getting completely off the point here. What happened is that Mayhew quoted a couple of mediocre passages from poems by two of North Carolina’s poet laureates (apparently they just had a changing of the guard).

Mayhew’s reactions gave me some thoughts of my own regarding the purpose of poetry. I’ll first copy what he wrote and then give my reflections.

Mayhew quotes from the previous laureate:

“Joan and I were in Raleigh together
for the first time to take the tour
for new vista volunteers
at North Carolina’s Central Prison…”

and then shares his reaction:

Ouch. It’s fine to use seemingly plain language, etc… but no rhythm, nothing going on in the language. This kind of writing just causes physical pain to me.

Then he quotes from the recent laureate:

“I’m grateful for my car, he says,
voice raspy with hard living.
Tossed on the seat, a briefcase
covered with union stickers,
stuffed with unemployment forms,
want ads, old utility bills,
birth certificate, school application
papers for the skinny ten-year-old
sitting beside him who loves baseball…”

This he characterizes as worse than the first poem (“not much worse,” though), but I don’t quite understand where this ranking is coming from, given that he follows up with, “More is going on in her language, actually. It’s not exactly good, but it’s salvageable, with some concreteness there at least.”

I assume that we can all agree, though, that it’s hard to judge either poem, or either poet, by these short excerpts. Both excerpts radiate mediocrity but of course a bit of mediocrity can do the job in the context of a larger message. I’m pretty sure that, for almost any major poet, you could without much difficulty find passages that, if shown to me in isolation, would not sparkle and could indeed look a bit like hackwork. I mean, sure, “voice raspy with hard living” sounds cliched, but who among us does not grab a cliche from time to time. For all we know from this excerpt, the use of the cliche is part of the point in establishing the narrator’s voice.

OK, let me be clear here. I’m not trying to get all contrarian on you and praise these two poets. I have no problem giving Mayhew the benefit of the doubt, I’ll assume he read a bit by each of them and with these excerpts is giving something of a true sense of these poems’ style and content. So I will accept (until convinced otherwise) that these poets are indeed mediocre.

What is the purpose of a poem?

And this brings us to today’s topic. The thing that bothers me about Mayhew’s post (even though I have a feeling I’d agree with him 100% about the strengths and weaknesses of these poems, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we share many tastes about and attitudes toward literature) is the implicit attitude that I see there, which I feel I’ve seen in other discussions of poetry, which is that the purpose of a poem is to be wonderful.

Huh? “The purpose of a poem is to be wonderful.” That seems like a reasonable statement, no? Who could disagree with that?

To see my problem with this statement (which, to be fair, Mayhew never said, but which I see as implicit in his post), consider the related question, “What is the purpose of a novel?” Or, for that matter, what is the purpose of a research article? Or what is the purpose of a song?

My point is that I think it’s a bad attitude to think that the purpose of a poem is to be wonderful. It’s insulting to poetry to give it such a narrow range. A poem is a sort of song without music and, as such can have many different purposes.

OK, procrastination successful. An hour spent, now time for bed.


  1. Thomas says:

    I’ve been looking forward to this post after seeing it “on deck”. I think it’s important to keep in mind that Jonathan takes poetry as seriously as you take statistics. So when he runs into a bad poem it irks him as much as when you run into, say, a bad graph. Naturally, the irk is relative to the context. A bad graph on a local newscast is not as worrying as a bad graph in the New York times. But it’s still bad, i.e., less than wonderful. A poet laureate’s bad poetry is worth taking seriously somewhere on that scale. (A bad poem in the New Yorker, too.)

    Suppose someone complained that you assume that “the purpose of a graph is to be wonderful”. Well, that’s actually a category mistake. The purpose of the graph is to convey information and when it does this extremely well it is, arguably, “wonderful”. Likewise, the purpose of a poem is to present emotion. I like to say that poetry is the art of writing emotions down, with the aim of making us “feel better”. I don’ t mean poems should make us happier, but that they should make us better able to feel emotions, which can be difficult. Likewise, graphs help us to understand functions of various kinds.

    There is such a thing as a truly bad graph, one that misleads and confuses us. And the same is true of bad poetry. There are poems that can make people less able to feel. (I’m inclined to say that this is what we mean when we deride a poem for being “sentimental”. Sentimentality is a way of protecting ourselves from precision in feeling, from intensity.)

    Now, obviously all this sort of complaining is “elitist”. North Carolina’s poet laureate can’t do any damage to Jonathan Mayhew’s capacity to feel. Just as a bad graph in the New York Times can’t confuse you, Andrew Gelman. The badness of each presentation is immediately apparent to your expert eyes. What you and Jonathan complain about is the effect that poor presentation might have on untrained minds, who will allow their vision/feeling to be informed by it.

  2. jonathan says:

    I studied poetry intensively
    at Yale: lectures to seminars.
    I have no idea
    what the purpose of a poem is.
    A puzzle: were their hand-written versions
    accompanied by photos – black and white
    of course – more or less
    than the 4th ed., revised?
    I still don’t like Elizabeth Bishop, though
    she seemed nice. After all,
    Not sure what a poem is.
    Richard Cory put a bullet through his head
    They were delicious so sweet
    In kitchen cups concupiscent curds
    And in the room, the women – shut the fuck up –
    Phony fucking arma virumque cano
    Say Blake is crazy and you get a D
    (but he was)

    • jrc says:

      dispatch from the field (an email collage poem):

      difficult situation here … convicted war criminals … to be executed but the judges halted… houses of the ruling party members were burnt…managing field problems….discussions with the local leaders… safer ways to move… did not need to stop data collection…other field sites…halted…situation is tense…. sorry for the inconvenience.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Is this p-hacking?

  4. numeric says:

    The purpose of poetry is to allow one to read it to avoid real work, and, at the same time, believe oneself virtuous, in a way one would not if one were downing a six-pack and watching the NFL.

    • jrc says:

      I’ve never fully bought into Mill’s way of thinking about this, but there is something in his distinction between higher and lower pleasures.

      I’ve learned a whole lot about myself from reading literature. Engaging with literature (and all kinds of art) helped me craft a life that I find meaningful and worth living.

      What makes you think that “work” is more important than becoming a good, thoughtful, interesting human being? Its almost like you are saying that we are put on this earth to work. I assure you poetry pre-dates Bourgeois/Protestant ethics.

  5. Duvane says:

    “I had no idea that an individual state would have a poet laureate but it seems like a good idea, a quite reasonable nearly cost-free thing to do, indeed it would be cool to have all sorts of official state art.”

    Only tangential to the point of this post, I know, but all I could think when reading this was: Andrew Gelman, meet Kevin Underhill.

    I’ve lived in North Carolina all my life, and if I had ever heard that there was a poet laureate, I’d forgotten it (which isn’t too surprising, I guess). Googling “poet laureate of North Carolina” I found out two things: 1) that what was originally just a feel-good, minor legislative-waste-of-time has grown into an actual thing with a stipend and doubtless several hours of bureaucratic administration and 2) that apparently the most recent change was a Big Deal (with outrage, resignations, and goodness knows how many man-hours wasted). It’s a case study in the practical reasons why I always think these things are a bad idea.

  6. Conor says:

    To quote the great Simon Leys on G.K. Chesterton:
    “But what is poetry? It is not merely a literary form made of rhythmic and rhyming lines – though Chesterton also wrote (and wrote memorably) a lot of these. Poetry is something much more essential. Poetry is grasping reality, making an inventory of the visible world, giving names to all creatures, naming what is. Thus, for Chesterton, one of the greatest poems ever written was, in Robinson Crusoe, simply the list of things that Robinson salvaged from the wreck of his ship: two guns, one axe, three cutlasses, one saw, three Dutch cheeses, five pieces of dried goat flesh… Poetry is our vital link with the outside world – the lifeline on which our very survival depends – and therefore also, in some circumstances, it can also become the ultimate safeguard of our mental sanity.”

    Too bad this causes Mr. Mayhew physical pain.

  7. WB says:

    The question over the purpose of poetry–or, more generally, literature–has been asked for at least 2,000 years. Fortunately, there’s a 2,000-year-old answer. According to Horace, “The aim of the poet is to inform or delight, or to combine together, in what he says, both pleasure and applicability to life.” So a poem should provide both insight and awe. Being wonderful, then, is one of two major purposes of poetry–that is, if you accept Horace’s position.

    • Andrew says:


      I don’t hold with the attitude that a poem is more about being wonderful than is a novel, for example. I feel like the “poetry should be wonderful” attitude doesn’t work, from one direction because it sets the bar too high, and from the other direction because I get the impression that the aim of wonderfulness is a source of the whole poetry-should-be-cryptic attitude that I associate with T. S. Eliot and most of the art poetry I see (for example, the stuff in the New Yorker).

      • Jonathan Mayhew says:

        I think the purpose of a novel is to be wonderful too. That is the purpose of music, art, dance, etc…

      • WB says:


        For me, a good poem or a wonderful poem–or whatever you want to call it–should be quotable. It should make you want to remember, recite, and share it.

        The poems in the New Yorker are rarely readable, let alone quotable. I think that most professional poets–i.e., academics who have career incentives to publish their work in prestigious outlets–are writing for the narrowest audience: other academics, who function simultaneously as writers and editors of poetry themselves. That’s why most of us don’t enjoy or pay attention to their work.

        I also think that’s why many people turn to song lyrics for their poetry fix. For me, almost nothing that T.S. Eliot wrote beats Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Both songs have phenomenal lyrics that stay in my head whether I want them to or not. They make me think and smile at the same time. In other words, I’m informed and delighted by them.

        If some song lyrics qualify as poetry, then maybe, as this article argues, “Americans Have Never Loved Poetry More”:

  8. digithead says:

    Good post. Statistics and quantitative methods may help us answer big questions but art, music, and literature ask the big questions that need to be answered.

    Mayakovsky’s “Taking with the taxman about poetry” always seems appropriate as it expresses the futility in creating “value” to validate one’s trade. FYI, Billy Bragg ripped him off. This particular stanza sums up any effort that takes enormous work to produce small things of great value. Just think of amount of code needed to be written to manage and analyze data to create some summary measure. Anyhow, Mayakovsky wrote:

    “Poetry is just like mining radium.
    To gain just a gram you must labor a year.
    Tons of lexicon ore excavating
    All for the sake of one precious word
    But how searing the heat of this word is
    Alongside the smoldering heap of waste.”
    -Vladimir Mayakovsky, Talking with the Taxman about Poetry (1926)

  9. Jerd says:

    Well I caint b’lieve up yar
    thy stole it
    they took what I wrote
    joan and me
    at the N.C.
    Welcoming Center.
    the guest book, you know
    ya gotta sign, if you want free
    you gotta tell why you are here, all in the book to get yerself cupons for an oil change
    that’s MY writin, me and joannie!
    somune else got the prize with my guest book writin?
    hah! poetry.
    i member that particlar day
    a tour, bend shrubs–got poison ivy to prove it
    that day, hey
    we visitin old Ray -yeah
    Ray’s up at Central
    didn’t do nothin
    just being
    they say the state gets into a man,
    like the relief stop–free maps and cupons for joannie for Ray for Raleigh, for NC

  10. Well, if one thing is obvious, it is that Jonathan Mayhew (and people commenting on his blog) knows little about poetry. Or at least prose poetry ( There’s no need for rhythm or anything “funny” going on in the language. There’s not even a need for any special imagery.

    “Joan and I were in Raleigh together
    for the first time to take the tour
    for new vista volunteers
    at North Carolina’s Central Prison…”

    is a perfectly acceptable start to a poem. It’s the poem as a whole that should have an impact. And quoting it to establish one’s credential as a literary critic is about as credible as printing e=mc2 on a T-shirt and claiming it as a contribution to physics.

    It’s one thing disliking somebody’s writing and being vocal about it. But basing a half-baked critique of it based on just personal dislike without any real understanding of the context and the field as a whole is nothing but hackery. Far worse and worthy of contempt than any putative cliche or a rhythmless poem a would be laureate might commit.

  11. Saying that the purpose of a poem is to be wonderful is like saying that the purpose of a joke is to be funny. And saying that one poem or poet is much better that another is like saying that one joke or comedian is better than another. These assume that the wonderfulness or funniness reside completely in the poem or joke and ignore the question, “Wonderful to who?”

    If someone tells a joke and most of the people laugh, but a handful say, “That’s not funny,” who’s right? Same question for Eliot, Dylan, W.C. Williams, Rod McKuen, the new PL of NC, et al. And the answer to the “who’s right” question – whether given by those who prefer Berryman or those who prefer McKuen – is usually is an elaborate form of “me and people like me.”

  12. charlie williams says:

    of course the official term for NC is North Cackalacky. That’s probably too unwieldy for a poet-laureate. Maybe ok for an ordinary poet, but not a laureate.

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