MANUEL IRIS | What purpose do you serve?: The practical function of poetry
Let me begin by expressing my thanks for the invitation back here to Monterrey, one of the most beautiful and industrious cities in a country now divided between hope and fear, shame and faith, violence and quiet. As fate would have it, I come here fresh from a visit to Bogotá and Caracas, on a recent holiday, to investigate poetry.
Bogotá, Caracas, Monterrey. The three cities are or have been seen as dangerous, but also as places of poetry, as cultural hubs, and the homes of remarkable artists. I recall those destinations because in all three cities I was asked (by taxi drivers, salespersons and even librarians over there, at a much more formal conference here) about the practical function of poetry.
What do you do for a living? What purpose does poetry serve? These are questions I’m often asked in contexts as variegated as my family or the university. The two questions convey another that, out of embarrassment perhaps, no one dares to ask: Poet, what purpose do you serve? I can’t help but take the matter personally and answer, knowing beforehand that, regardless of the response and of the little affection certain audiences may have for it, poetry will continue to exist.
My answer begins by pointing out that I am not and will not be a social poet. I am, however, a poet and a citizen aware of his surroundings. It is no surprise, then, that in cities like the ones I have visited this past month and others not as violent, people, both more intellectual and more pedestrian, should be curious about the subject at hand.
I believe that any question about the practical purpose of poetry is a trick question: when someone asks what purpose is served by poetry – poetry, which has always been and will never disappear; poetry, which is necessary-, the issue lies not in poetry, but in the use they make of the verb to serve, assuming that things only serve when they create or produce something that can be bought, or sold, or used as a tool. Certainly, poetry has no utility, it doesn’t serve as a hammer, or a gun, or a screwdriver. Nor does it sell or buy anything, and maybe this is why it has a clear, albeit false, appearance of uselessness.
Faced with this trap, a few poets have found themselves caught and have even admitted, without necessity and sometimes with a little vanity, the uselessness of poetry. Nothing could be more wrong. Poetry is useful in a different order of ideas, perhaps not a higher order, but one that does exist: poetry in full at least signals and explores the gaps in our social life and individual consciousness. And so it really serves not to count things, nor to make money, nor even to boost technology, but so that we can reveal our nature in a non-routine manner. This is its use, and not in any way idealized or figurative. It is a practical use. And failing to realize it as such belies not a “lack” of meaning in poetry, but a clear mechanization of our social and individual lives.
Poetry is (among many other things) and has been since the beginning of time a means to communicate with ourselves and with transcendence, and has not changed except in format. I don’t doubt that the notion that poetry is useless is also ancient, but here and now, as in other times of hopelessness, it is mentioned more often and even with a pinch of bad faith. It is the fruit, actually, of asking poetry for things it has no reason to provide, even if provide it may on occasion: poetry is not intended to stop wars, solve the issue of famine, end poverty, and nor is it supposed to. There is no sense in demanding that it should solve problems it never created and, still, in times like these, poetry – and not just social poetry – is completely necessary.
Let me calm down and return to the issue of the utility of poetry by telling a recent anecdote. In Bogotá, a lady who sold me pastries asked, while talking vary casually about poetry, what is it for?, and a young girl who was helping her sell answered, as if apologizing to me, the boy writes poems, they speak of love, of beautiful things. Her reply was very well meaning, and I appreciate it. Still, to say that a poet is useful because he makes beautiful things is almost the same as equating him with a maker of decorative knick-knacks. A poem’s purpose is far deeper, eve if it begins with a need to add a beautiful object to reality. We so face not only a trick question (what purpose does poetry serve?) but also an equally tricky question (it speaks of beautiful things). Both invalidate poetry and make it look like an unnecessary luxury, a pair of cuff links. I believe poets must be careful not to enter any of those dynamics.
After the kind response from the pastry vendor’s helper, let us now discuss that from certain young poets (or so I heard it from them), according to whom in the midst of so much sadness and violence, poetry is an oasis of sorts, a kind of locus amoenus that serves as sanctuary from reality. To complete the cliché, someone will soon call them “escapist” and they will quickly start talking about symbolism, about pure poetry, and all those things that have been said and repeated over and over.
It is a huge misunderstanding, not because their poetry is actually an escape, but because it was not (I hope) written as such, as something to distract readers from their surrounding reality. The poem has appeared and is there, in the world, performing its function of linking men to their nature, as if seeing it for the first time.
But who has called the poets I refer to escapists? The others, the “aware” and “responsible” poets, those who hit the road and turn poetry from song into a gun loaded with the future, human and real. In this case, my friends, it appears to me as a poet that the trap is even deeper: I think poetry is not required to talk about human strife, even it is able to. My point is that I completely disagree with those who argue that poetry must speak of this or that. Poetrymust be poetry and nothing else. To speak of what it will, whether the subject is social or not.
A poem, even a social poem, is an intimate act; a poem happens in solitude. Therefore, a poet must be candid, honest and responsible towards poetry. Others may or may not be in it. We cannot forget that poets, however social they may be, are also citizens. What a poet says or does not say should not affect his or her actions as a citizen. That is, the absence of protest in a poem does not require it to be absent from the streets. A poet is a citizen like anyone else and, as such, must perform his or her social duty.
The practical use of a poem is to shed light on ignored or obscure corners of our nature. It is to show that not everything must serve like a car does, because a poem reveals another possible for (as ancient as the former and perhaps more necessary) of usefulness. A poem’s uses are also as vast as its possibilities: it can speak of anything, express discontent as much as rage, love, desire. A poem’s use – and I say again, a practical use – is to serve as the instrument and embodiment of an idea/emotion that cannot be said any other way.
Poetry, all poetry, is necessary. Art is necessary, required. Its justification, however, lies in another order of ideas. This means, dear friends, that poets are like jugglers, bakers and architects, we serve a purpose. We have earned the right to exist.
Manuel Iris (Mexico, 1983). Poet and essayist. Author of Versos robados y otros juegos (2004 y 2006), and Cuaderno de los sueños (2009). This text was read as part of a lectures panel on the Practical function of poetry (“La Función práctica de la poesía”), during the 3rd National Meeting of Young Writers in Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico, August 2011. Translated by Allan Vidigal. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Page illustrated with works by Kurt Seligmann (Switzerland), guest artist this year’s ARC.