You can’t eat poetry,” is an age-old axiom, according to the poet Eugenio Montale. I can only imagine letting it drop in a roomful of writers. “Right,” some would nod. “Absolutely wrong, you eat it every day,” others would argue. “What is the definition of ‘eat?’” the philosopher in the room would ask.
“You can’t eat poetry” is a bold line about values in art: why we come to art, why we need art, and why we create art are some of the questions it raises. The conversation is as old as Plato: “Poetry is delight, but of what use is poetry?” questions Socrates (paraphrased) in The Republic.
Let’s not be swept up into the easy grandeur of philosophical generalizations—every person decides for herself whether or not poetry can be “eaten,” whether the delight is its use or whether it is a superfluous pastime for reader and writer.
This discussion threatens to merely sound high-minded, but as with all ideas it has real implications for whether (and then how) we invest in art, be our investment monetary (see Keira Havens’ post Living with Art) or time. But especially inherent is the implication for how we live our everyday life.
Example: I have a nine-month old son, Beren. He is now crawling. If I could explain his newfound energy and mobility to you, I would ask you to imagine a lit stick of dynamite. Now imagine two lean arms with reachy-fingers and two long legs with lint-collecting toes sprouting from the dynamite. Here is my crux: when it comes to life with a quick-crawling infant, poetry can’t be my daily bread. My daily bread needs to be whole grains and spinach and Greek yogurt and things that can keep me moving at complementary speed to my baby.
Rather, at the end of a long day, poetry needs to be my cake. In fact it has to be my cake. I need it in all its useless, unnecessary glory. Maybe Antoinette’s famous “Let them eat cake” dismissal was referring to the arts in everyday life—probably not, but that’s exactly the problem with value-laden nouns. Regardless, after the broken teething biscuit has been swept off the floor and boiled egg unpeeled from every flat surface in my kitchen, come Beren’s bedtime at 7pm, I need poetry—call it dessert, call it grace. In this hour, poetry (or any reading of my choice) is useful to me because it is not useful. I deal with useful objects all day and frankly, they wear me out (broom, dustpan, sink, washer, vacuum, and lately, moving boxes). So if I could stick my unwelcome, newly-mothered head into the dialogue of The Republic I would say:
“See here, Socrates: Is delight not also of use to the everyday person?”
Montale offers another answer to Plato’s wary cross-examination of poetry, and writes in his essay The Second Profession, “Poetry's constitutional inability to earn poets anything probably means that it has a dignity of its own to which the other arts cannot always aspire.”
Or as young Fred tells Scrooge in The Christmas Carol, “…though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that [Christmas] has done me good, and will do me good.”
For some, poetry (and writing) is the everyday bread. For others, it is the torte. And yet still for others all of these eating analogies are ridiculous. Find out what poetry is for you and what relationship you have with poetry, because ultimately it’s not just a genre of literature in question, but your intellectual life, your thinking mind—who you actually are as an individual.
And for the creative writer and reader, that’s right up there with bread and breath.
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