A NY Times story by Timothy Williams on the poet August Kleinzahler (thanks for the link, Bonnie!) sent me to Kleinzahler’s scathing, unfair, and thoroughly enjoyable assault on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac (which I praised here, though I agree he certainly reads a lot of bad poems), which contains a magnificent quote from one of my favorite poets, Basil Bunting:

Poetry is no use whatever. The whole notion of usefulness is irrelevant to what are called the fine arts, as it is to many other things, perhaps to most of the things that really matter. We who call ourselves “The West,” now that we’ve stopped calling ourselves Christians, are so imbued with the zeal for usefulness that was left us by Jeremy Bentham that we find it difficult to escape from utilitarianism into a real world.

Kleinzahler concludes with “National Poetry Day” by the Scottish poet Gael Turnbull (who died last year):

“Transform your life with poetry”
the card said, and briefly I fussed
that this overestimated the effect
until I remembered how it had thrust
several old friends,
plus near and dear,
into distress and penury,
how even I, without the dust
of its magic, might have achieved
peace of mind, even success,
so maybe the advice is just,
not to be ignored, a sort of timely
Health Warning from the Ministry
of Benevolence
at the Scottish Book Trust.


  1. Richard Hershberger says

    Do you suppose Kleinzahler actually wrote “The humor is deadpan, ironical, playfully depreciating” or is that last word a mistranscription of “deprecating”?

  2. “No hay ejercicio intelectual que no sea finalmente inútil.” (J.L.Borges)

  3. Good question! Given the poor quotation habits of reporters (recently under intense scrutiny at Language Log), I’ll opt for the latter, but if he did say “depreciating,” I’m willing to be tolerant, since that’s one of those pairs of words I’ve always had trouble with myself.

  4. Richard Hershberger says

    I just read Kleinzahler’s piece on Garrison Keillor. What I take away from it is that Kleinzahler dislikes the kind of poetry Keillor likes, and is prepared to be insufferable about it: he has an idea of what poetry should be and will disparage anything that doesn’t fit his idea and anyone who likes such poetry. I wanted to slap the Robin Williams character in “Dead Poets Society” for exactly the same reason.

  5. I had other reasons for wanting to slap the Robin Williams character in “Dead Poets’ Society”; but yours will do.

  6. BTW does that Borges line mean, “There are no intellectual exercises which are not, in the end, useless”? I’ve recently been reading some of his poetry and finding it deeply affecting or not at all, depending on which poem — no middle ground — not sure if that is true of my reaction to poetry in general.

  7. the name nardeen means friend.

  8. “There is no exercise of the intellect which is not, in the final analysis, useless. A philosophical doctrine begins as a plausible description of the universe; with the passage of the years it becomes a mere chapter–if not a paragraph or a name–in the history of philosophy. In literature, this eventual caducity is even more notorious. The Quixote –Menard told me–was, above all, an entertaining book; now it is the occasion for patriotic toasts, grammatical insolence and obscene de luxe editions. Fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst.”
    From: “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”
    Trans. James E. Irby

  9. God, I hated it when Robin Williams went off drugs.

  10. ThePedanticPrick says

    I think Oscar Wilde said it best: “Writing poetry is nothing to be ashamed of, so long as you do it in private, and wash your hands immediately afterward.” (I could be wrong about the author of this quote)

  11. There is a common school of thought that language is just a tool, i.e., learning a foreign language is not very useful in itself, what is important is what you do with it (as a secondary tool that helps you do your job, getting somewhere, whatever). I’ve always found this line of thinking insufferably narrow. After some thought I eventually rejected it several years ago. Surely a language, like poetry, is something to be appreciated for itself, not simply as a means to an end!

  12. Today I read both Kleinzahler’s piece and then this by Keillor. What a pair of officemates these guys would make! Maybe in the next life, they’ll be on the same faculty committee.
    If memory serves, Keillor has a pretty good bit in Lake Wobegon Days about a college kid churning out reams of bad poetry. I think aspiring poets might benefit more from that than they would from Kleinzahler’s rant.

  13. I think people sometimes quote Jack Spicer‘s ” No one listens to poetry.” without bearing in mind that the next sentence is “The ocean / Does not mean to be listened to.”

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