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September 01, 2010
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I recently joined the Nittany Valley Writer’s Network in Pennsylvania, and I have been trying to convince some of the other members of the wondrous nature of poetry. Consequently, they’ve asked me to write a column in the newsletter on “Why Poetry Matters”, the title taken from Jay Parini’s excellent book Why Poetry Matters .
Poetry is sometimes dismissed as irrelevant to the modern world, and some see it as a relic of bygone times. Poetry, though, has always and will always matter. Poetry has existed since the time of primitive human beings, when it was the language of prayer and incantation, and even now it reflects the times we are living in. Take for example, Katy Lederer’s 2008 collection The Heaven-sent Leaf, which comments on the current financial crisis. Lederer has some experience of this world, having worked for a hedge-fund in midtown Manhattan. The “heaven-sent leaf” is paper money, a phrase taken from the story of Faust (Goethe’s version) when he was tempted by the devil to exchange his soul for money and power. Whether you know the reference or not, it is obvious Lederer is writing about the temptations of the stock-market. In “The Tender Wish to Buy This World”, she puns on the financial, physical, and emotional meanings of the word “tender”.
The shedding of leaves from the wallet of morning
Down low by the bridge in this city of money,
I will take down this axe, shatter gently this greed.
Money inhabits the landscape of Manhattan, the printed notes becoming leaves on the trees. The shedding of the leaves also suggests the losses of the financial crisis. In response, Lederer enacts a symbolic ritual that shatters greed, though she does it “gently”. She suggests that it is only human to be greedy, and the evocative language in her poem works powerfully to unravel the whys and wherefores of the current recession.
(Read Lederer’s full poem at http://hcl.harvard.edu/harvardreview/issues/34/Lederer_1.html).
For those interested in getting to know poetry better, I recommend: Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, Neil Astley, ed., a useful and accessible anthology of what actress Mia Farrow calls `truly startling and powerful poems’; and An Introduction to English Poetry by James Fenton, the best introduction to meter and rhythm I have found.