What Poetry Can Do

If you haven’t seen Mary Szybist’s acceptance speech at the National Book Awards ceremony, do yourself a favor. It is everything that we would want from a poet, or from anyone, honored with a big award–humble, profound, passionate, genuine. Szybist’s book is stunning, and well-deserving of the honor. It is the kind of wrestling (with big ideas, and with no easy victory) that we want, or at least I want, from poems.

The bit of Szybist’s speech most widely quoted is this one: “There’s plenty that poetry cannot do, but the miracle, of course, is how much it can do, how much it does do. So often I think I know myself, only to discover in a poem a difference, an otherness that resonates, where I find myself, as Wallace Stevens once put it, “more truly and more strange.” It is what some describe as soul-making. I count myself among them.”

This sentiment was the starting point for Kelle Groom, this week’s guest blogger at the Best American Poetry blog, who is curating a series of responses to the question: “What can poetry do?” In the wake of the latest public attempts to hold the mirror to the mouth of poetry and see if it still breathes (spoiler alert: it does), the question of what poetry can do seems realer, more vibrant, more relevant. Read Incarnadine and tell me it’s dead. Read it and return something of yourself to life.

So anyway. Kelle asked me to contribute a short bit for the colloquium on what poetry can do, and this morning my piece finds itself happily among friends. Thanks to Kelle for inviting me to contribute, and to my fellow poets who keep the body breathing.