The Pleasure of Ideas - James Galvin describes why poetry endures

April is National Poetry Month, so Spectator asked Iowa Writers’ Workshop alumnus and faculty member James Galvin to talk a bit about poetry.

Galvin, winner of a 2003 Lannan Foundation Award, has written several volumes of poems, many of which were collected in Resurrection Update. His most recent collection, As Is, extends his immersion in the American West—he splits time between Iowa City and his remote home in the Snowy Range above Tie Siding, Wyoming.

He is also the author of The Meadow, an acclaimed memoir/history of the terrain and people of a high-mountain meadow near his home, and the novel Fencing the Sky.

His honors include a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation award and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. His second book, God’s Mistress, was a National Poetry Series Selection.

Only a tiny percentage of the population actually reads poetry, new or old. Why should we care about poetry?

Actually, more people read poetry in America today than ever before. This could be just a matter of literacy. But it does remain true that compared to the number of people reading People, Us, USA Today, junky airport novels, or even good novels, poetry is largely neglected. Hence, National Poetry Month, which serves to remind us that poetry in English has always been monumentally important to our culture, and that poetry is the most powerful use of language that there is (in a good way, meaning not so much persuasive as evocative).

Great political orators aspire to it. To some extent, the power of poetry inheres in its apparent powerlessness. Compared to language used for advertising or political persuasion, poetry doesn’t seem very imposing. But poetry is not a commodity. It takes a stand against commodification, even of other art forms. It is relatively free from the capitalist paradigm, so poets can say whatever they want.

National Poetry Month is an opportunity to acquaint or restore readers to a natural relationship with the art. Nobody looks at a painting or hears a piece of classical music and responds with, “What does it mean?” as they often do with poetry. People mistake poetry for philosophy-in-a-can, or a secret message that needs to be decoded. That is often how it is presented in school.

But poetry, like any art form, is about pleasure. It is primarily a somatosensory experience: sounds, senses, images, and, yes, the pleasure of ideas. Poetry has the greatest capacity to accommodate ideas of any art form, but beautiful ideas are pleasure. Poetry, like any art, is just a way of talking about the things we can’t talk about.

Since poetry is not a commodity, it seems perfect for the Internet. Nobody is writing poetry for a living and now anyone can easily “publish” their poetry. Of course, this also means there is no critical mediation. What is your take on the impact of the Internet on poetry?

I wish I knew more about e-publishing and blogging. I know there are many electronic magazines, along with the overabundance of print magazines. But I really think you put your finger on the problem, especially concerning blogging, that there is no critical mediation. Self-publishing is an ancient and honorable tradition (Blake, Whitman), but who could keep track of what’s out there?

At least small magazines with good reputations save time. If everyone just published themselves on the Internet, that would be an overwhelming amount of data. Some of it would surely be bad data. And since so many people already write about being overwhelmed by information and technology...could word of mouth keep up as a replacement for critical mediation? Maybe.

Critical mediation is not in the long run what determines the poetry that lasts. It does save time, but readers staying interested in a text over time is all that really matters. Poets like Emily Dickinson and Gerard Manley Hopkins hardly published anything during their lives, but over time they have emerged as two of our greatest poets.

Why would someone want to be a poet? It seems like lots of people write poetry, but most of them don’t think of themselves as poets. You teach in the workshop and have a page at Do you self-identify as a “poet”?

I think that people write poetry because they have to. There are anxieties that can’t be addressed any other way. I guess I only feel like a poet when I’m writing poetry, when I am actually engaging language as poetry—then and when I haven’t written in a long time. Mostly, though, I just feel like a person who writes poetry. I feel alive and mortal on earth.

Winston Barclay
with photo by Kirk Murray

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© The University of Iowa 2009