Those who know me are aware that I am not a fan of the President. However, a few days ago he commemorated National Poetry Month with the following:
Is poetry a necessity in the same manner as food and shelter? Obviously not. Indeed, more than a few people seem to do just fine without regard to it at all. However, I think there is more than a little truth to the President’s statement, and not surprisingly, I find it in the writing of Northrop Frye.
When asked to justify the study of literature, Frye argued that it is a means — perhaps the best means — of developing the imagination, and further, that without imagination, man very well might not have survived. To quote him inexactly, the moment at which we go from “I don’t like this” to “I want it to be like this instead”, we are engaging in imagination. And if we look at the development of the expression of imagination we think of as literature, poetry in fact comes before prose. Even as children, we learn through song and rhyme before we learn through prose. Even the alphabet itself we learn through means of a song — a poem.
And of course, there’s the matter of quality of life as well. Without poetry, we may exist, we may get by. But we get by much as do the ants. As Frank Zappa observed, without music (and poetry is a kind of music), life is simply a series of dates by which bills must be paid. That, to me, is existence, rather than life. It’s poetry that keeps us from being what another poet described as “a bare, forked animal.”
In the harshest times of my life, it has often been poetry that has helped to bear me along, from the 23rd Psalm to the sardonic consolation of A.E. Housman. Would I have continued without them? Perhaps, but I know my life is what it is at least in part because those poems were there.
So, while I think the President has done plenty that warrants opprobrium, sneering at his praise of poetry seems off the mark. May we all be more imaginative than that, as imagination will help us envision the world we want to inhabit.