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Poetry doesn’t matter to most people, observes Jay Parini at the opening of this book. But, undeterred, he commences a deeply felt meditation on poetry, its language and meaning, and its power to open minds and transform lives. By the end of the book, Parini has recovered a truth often obscured by our clamorous culture: without poetry, we live only partially, not fully con Poetry doesn’t matter to most people, observes Jay Parini at the opening of this book. But, undeterred, he commences a deeply felt meditation on poetry, its language and meaning, and its power to open minds and transform lives. By the end of the book, Parini has recovered a truth often obscured by our clamorous culture: without poetry, we live only partially, not fully conscious of the possibilities that life affords. Poetry indeed matters.   A gifted poet and acclaimed teacher, Parini begins by looking at defenses of poetry written over the centuries. He ponders Aristotle, Horace, and Longinus, and moves on through Sidney, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Eliot, Frost, Stevens, and others. Parini examines the importance of poetic voice and the mysteries of metaphor. He argues that a poet’s originality depends on a deep understanding of the traditions of political poetry, nature poetry, and religious poetry.   Writing with a casual grace, Parini avoids jargon and makes his case in concise, direct terms: the mind of the poet supplies a light to the minds of others, kindling their imaginations, helping them to live their lives. The author’s love of poetry suffuses this insightful book—a volume for all readers interested in a fresh introduction to the art that lies at the center of Western civilization.


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Poetry doesn’t matter to most people, observes Jay Parini at the opening of this book. But, undeterred, he commences a deeply felt meditation on poetry, its language and meaning, and its power to open minds and transform lives. By the end of the book, Parini has recovered a truth often obscured by our clamorous culture: without poetry, we live only partially, not fully con Poetry doesn’t matter to most people, observes Jay Parini at the opening of this book. But, undeterred, he commences a deeply felt meditation on poetry, its language and meaning, and its power to open minds and transform lives. By the end of the book, Parini has recovered a truth often obscured by our clamorous culture: without poetry, we live only partially, not fully conscious of the possibilities that life affords. Poetry indeed matters.   A gifted poet and acclaimed teacher, Parini begins by looking at defenses of poetry written over the centuries. He ponders Aristotle, Horace, and Longinus, and moves on through Sidney, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Eliot, Frost, Stevens, and others. Parini examines the importance of poetic voice and the mysteries of metaphor. He argues that a poet’s originality depends on a deep understanding of the traditions of political poetry, nature poetry, and religious poetry.   Writing with a casual grace, Parini avoids jargon and makes his case in concise, direct terms: the mind of the poet supplies a light to the minds of others, kindling their imaginations, helping them to live their lives. The author’s love of poetry suffuses this insightful book—a volume for all readers interested in a fresh introduction to the art that lies at the center of Western civilization.

30 review for Why Poetry Matters

  1. 5 out of 5

    Trevor

    I need to write an essay on ‘leading educational ideas’. The problem is that the best I can come up with at the moment is how various metaphors related to curriculum effect the way kids end up being taught. The thing I like about this as a topic is that it will give me a chance to play with some of the language used in all of the texts I’ve been reading lately on curricula and to perhaps say something about how curricula work (or don’t work). But before I start (and I’ve a proposal that is due in I need to write an essay on ‘leading educational ideas’. The problem is that the best I can come up with at the moment is how various metaphors related to curriculum effect the way kids end up being taught. The thing I like about this as a topic is that it will give me a chance to play with some of the language used in all of the texts I’ve been reading lately on curricula and to perhaps say something about how curricula work (or don’t work). But before I start (and I’ve a proposal that is due in very soon that I haven’t really started in anything more than mind map form) I thought I would go back and read some works on metaphor. This is a book I’ve been planning on reading for a while and now I have. It was less useful than I had hoped, but okay. Basically, this guy sees poetry as a number of things, but mostly as a kind of scripture. He sees poetry as coming from a deeply theological urge and maybe even urgency. As someone who can only understand religion, if at all, as a kind of aesthetic sense taken too far – I could almost agree with him on the nature of poetry. However, I think he goes much further on this ‘poetry as scripture’ theme than I feel comfortable with. He also says that poetry is deeply political too – fundamentally political – as it regards (re-envisions?) society. He does make the interesting point that many poets are quite politically conservative, but all the same often still play the role of truth tellers. As a kind of communication poetry is fundamentally about community – or so he feels. How much poets really do fulfil this role – also in his version of poet as protector of environment – really is open for debate. There are also philosophical discussions – not least around Wittgenstein’s ‘the limits of my language are the limits of my world’ and Eliot and ‘the logos’. It is here that language and metaphor come to the fore. Essentially, he says that all words start life as metaphor (he gives a few choice examples – like Robert Frost using appall in his very white poem ‘Design’ (a bit of a ripoff of Blake's 'The Tyger' if you ask me). Of course, appall is a metaphor – it once meant ‘to make white’, as in the sense of blood draining from your face. He sees the role of poets as to not only bring back the original metaphoric meaning of words (a kind of linguistic archaeology), but also to test the limits of just how far you can stretch a metaphor. To be honest, he gives poets far too many roles. The word metaphor is itself a metaphor – it comes from Greek (I was going to say ‘the Greek’ – but like ‘the Lebanon’ I’ve never quite understood why Greek needs to be preceded by a definite article.) and means ‘to transfer’. In Greece trolleys are called metaphors – and this is a handy thing to know, as we use metaphors in much the same way we use trolleys – we use them to carry things that are too heavy for us to carry in any other way. A lot of this text is a gushing forth on the joys of poetry. As such, some people might find it a bit hard to take. As someone who has on occasion said things equally gushing (sometimes even equally as daft) about poetry, I didn’t mind this at all. But I think I would have said something else about poetry than what is said in this book. Poetry matters because it is the cordial of language – what is left once most of the water has been boiled away. Because it is so concentrated it can’t be drunk like water, sometimes it can barely even be sipped. However, the nicest line in this book says something like, ‘poetry can not be read, but only re-read’. By repeatedly returning to poems, it is almost as if we are able to dilute the poem finally into something we can drink. Except, of course, we don’t dilute the poem at all in this returning – but rather our tastes become accustomed to the richness (sharp and sweet that are beyond piquant and dulcet) that poetic language offers to us. We partake of poetry – it is like a meal we can return to again and again and each return refreshes us. Or as my mate George Herbert would have it, “Have I no harvest but a thorn To let me bloud, and not restore What I have lost with cordiall fruit?” Or not, of course – sometimes poetry is just a smile – because poetry doesn’t always aspire to be scripture. What it more often aspires to, I think, is those Buddhist ink paintings where in three strokes of a brush you get the essence of bamboo or of a stork or of something else. It is life as cordial, but mostly it is life. There was a time when I would have liked very much to have been a poet – all the best people do, of course – but I’ve ended up settling for prose. All the same, I do understand what I’ve given up in that settling. Poetry does matter, but then sometimes matter does poetry too.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jim

    Why Poetry Matters by Jay Parini - Not a bad book with some good thoughts on why poetry is important to us and to language and society. The author is a huge fan of Dickinson and Frost and the last third of the book is a Frost-centric outpouring of admiration akin to a high school crush that I found not that enjoyable. I will admit that if I ever wrote a book on poetry that I would behave the same way when it came time to write about Lord Byron so it is somewhat excusable.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Laurel Hicks

    To be read slowly and often. I especially appreciated the chapter on T. S. Eliot's "Four Quartets."

  4. 4 out of 5

    Callie Gardner

    read this aiming to find a book that lays out a sense of what's involved in reading poetry & this is the worst yet – barely steps outside the anglo-american canon, it was published in 2008 but reads like 50 years earlier. utterly conventional and dull, focussed on "great" writers -_- and has nothing to say beyond platitudes about nature and that free verse is hard actually. give it a miss. read this aiming to find a book that lays out a sense of what's involved in reading poetry & this is the worst yet – barely steps outside the anglo-american canon, it was published in 2008 but reads like 50 years earlier. utterly conventional and dull, focussed on "great" writers -_- and has nothing to say beyond platitudes about nature and that free verse is hard actually. give it a miss.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Caitlin Powers

    "Poetry is a conversation, and poets enter into the discussion wherever they are, as they are" (98). (We need poetry so that we can) "discover the silent space within us" (158). "Love is the restorative impulse, the antidote to war, to poverty, to hatred, and remorse" (174). "They (poets) peer into hidden places" and "speak for those who have no voice" (178). "Poetry matters because it provides this music, which at its best is heard so deeply that it approximates silence" (181). Great read for a teac "Poetry is a conversation, and poets enter into the discussion wherever they are, as they are" (98). (We need poetry so that we can) "discover the silent space within us" (158). "Love is the restorative impulse, the antidote to war, to poverty, to hatred, and remorse" (174). "They (poets) peer into hidden places" and "speak for those who have no voice" (178). "Poetry matters because it provides this music, which at its best is heard so deeply that it approximates silence" (181). Great read for a teacher who has a passion for poetry- reading it, writing it, performing it, listening to it, watching it, and appreciating it.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Carol

    Jay Parini, a gifted poet/novelist/biographer/acclaimed teacher, begins by looking at defenses of poetry written over the centuries. He ponders Aristotle, Horace, and Longinus, and moves on through Sidney, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Eliot, Frost, Stevens, and others. Parini examines the importance of poetic voice and the mysteries of metaphor. He argues that a poet’s originality depends on a deep understanding of the traditions of political poetry, nature poetry, and religious poetry.

  7. 4 out of 5

    John Fredrickson

    This is an excellent overview of the nature and meaning of poetry as a vehicle of language communication. Parini approaches this from a number of angles, including the nature of language and metaphor, poetic voice, poetry and politics, and the relation of poets and poetry to the natural world. Each chapter is thoughtful and informative. One of the interesting aspects of the book is a presentation of poets that engage, sometimes very directly, with their predecessors. The contrast of poetic origin This is an excellent overview of the nature and meaning of poetry as a vehicle of language communication. Parini approaches this from a number of angles, including the nature of language and metaphor, poetic voice, poetry and politics, and the relation of poets and poetry to the natural world. Each chapter is thoughtful and informative. One of the interesting aspects of the book is a presentation of poets that engage, sometimes very directly, with their predecessors. The contrast of poetic originality against poetic tradition is new and interesting to consider. The final chapter focuses on T. S. Eliot's Four Quarterts. Parini is clear throughout the book that this poem is a strong favorite of his. This is a poem that I have read, but always found somewhat off-putting. The analysis provided is definitely helpful, but only a future re-read of the poem will tell for sure.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Lydia

    The title explains the book well. Why does poetry matter? Here's one reason—"The chatter of daily life distracts us from distraction but never satisfies or saves us. Only the right words in time can do that." (p. 172)

  9. 4 out of 5

    Curtis

    This book is insightful and useful. It is also a little dry, bordering on dull.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Franny

    I am trying to expand my writing and understand poetry. I picked up this book as a primer to explain to me different approaches to poetry. I would say I loved the politics chapter the best and a few others. At certain points, I had to skip around because it was a little too much but I wanted to capture the gist of it and I was able to do that.The nature chapter I did not like so much but it had some good points, also the spiritual section at the end did not interest me too much. I liked that the I am trying to expand my writing and understand poetry. I picked up this book as a primer to explain to me different approaches to poetry. I would say I loved the politics chapter the best and a few others. At certain points, I had to skip around because it was a little too much but I wanted to capture the gist of it and I was able to do that.The nature chapter I did not like so much but it had some good points, also the spiritual section at the end did not interest me too much. I liked that the author kept mentioning classic writers, as I am not too knowledgeable about all the writers he mentioned and now will research them. I think its a great book for a teacher to use or even someone like myself who is trying to learn more about poetry and it's mechanics and the different reasons you could write about that affects society every day. I will be rereading certain parts of this book to understand its concepts more. Great read for the inquiring writer.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jenny

    Some chapters are better than others, politics and poetry and the one on metaphor, particularly. While the book seems to visit the same poets for examples (Eliot, Frost, Stevens, Eliot, Frost, Stevens etc.) they are good examples. This is one of those books cover a lot of ground in not too many pages. A good one to teach I think.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Therese Broderick

    This conversational yet learned book affirms the many values of reading poetry which accrue to both individuals and society. I could quibble with some of the statements, but overall, I'm in the same camp. I first read the book many months ago; this encounter is my second.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Corbin

    Why do I need someone I've never met to tell me why poetry matters? I don't.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Mary

    With quiet elegance, Parini convinces us that poetry offers a crucial window into the celebration and understanding of life.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Chelsea

    This book is easy to read, well laid out, and will make you want to read and/or write poetry. I highly recommend to anyone interested in poetry or taking a poetry class.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Kimberly

    It's a good read, but a cursory one. Parini can get carried away with his scriptural view of what poetry is. I think he is right, but the mush is too much for some.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Ana

    How can it not matter?!

  18. 4 out of 5

    Antonia

    I really enjoyed this up to Chapters 8 and 9. I'm just not the spiritual type. Will add more of a review later.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    I suppose I should already know why poetry matters, but these days I really kinda don't. At any rate, I'm always a sucker for this discussion.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Martha

    I think the NYT review says it all.... http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/08/opi... I think the NYT review says it all.... http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/08/opi...

  21. 4 out of 5

    Dana Sondergaard

  22. 4 out of 5

    Robert

  23. 5 out of 5

    Holly Langton

  24. 4 out of 5

    Weston Becker

  25. 5 out of 5

    Tim

  26. 5 out of 5

    Kevin O'Brien

  27. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

  28. 4 out of 5

    Michael Burnham

  29. 4 out of 5

    Alisa Dabb

  30. 5 out of 5

    Ellie

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