Why Poetry Matters

Jay Parini

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A brief, passionate book about the nature of poetry and its use in the world

Poetry doesn’t matter to most people, observes Jay Parini at the opening of this book. But, undeterred, he commences a deeply felt meditation on poetry, its language and meaning, and its power to open minds and transform lives. By the end of the book, Parini has recovered a truth often obscured by our clamorous culture: without poetry, we live only partially, not fully conscious of the possibilities that life affords. Poetry indeed matters.

A gifted poet and acclaimed teacher, Parini begins by looking at defenses of poetry written over the centuries. He ponders Aristotle, Horace, and Longinus, and moves on through Sidney, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Eliot, Frost, Stevens, and others. Parini examines the importance of poetic voice and the mysteries of metaphor. He argues that a poet’s originality depends on a deep understanding of the traditions of political poetry, nature poetry, and religious poetry.

Writing with a casual grace, Parini avoids jargon and makes his case in concise, direct terms: the mind of the poet supplies a light to the minds of others, kindling their imaginations, helping them to live their lives. The author’s love of poetry suffuses this insightful book—a volume for all readers interested in a fresh introduction to the art that lies at the center of Western civilization.

Jay Parini, a poet, novelist, and biographer, is D. E. Axinn Professor of English at Middlebury College. Among his many books are five volumes of poetry, most recently The Art of Subtraction: New and Selected Poems. His poems, articles, and reviews appear regularly in such journals as the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Harper’s, Poetry, the New York Times Book Review, the Guardian, and the Times Literary Supplement. He lives in Weybridge, VT.

Click here for an extended question & answer discussion with the author.

"With gentle insistence, Parini's book makes the case that poetry is worth reading—indeed, that it must be read—especially in a dark time like our own."—Christopher Benfey, author of Degas in New Orleans and The Great Wave

"Jay Parini celebrates not simply poetry but glorious life itself. He shows that poetry can quicken the mind, purge damp melancholy from the cold heart, and spread goldenrod across fallen days."—Samuel Pickering, author of Autumn Spring and Letters to a Teacher

“Concise, cogent, and convincing, Jay Parini clarifies a complex subject with common sense and uncommon insight. This is a book for both the newcomer and the old hand—a rousing and eloquent survey of an art that goes to the very center of our lives.”—J. D. McClatchy

"With the light touch and intelligent eye of a great teacher, Jay Parini makes this concise little book a marvel, plumbing the depths of the reasons for poetry and the underpinnings of the art from metaphor to vision, from nature to politics . Beginning with that notorious anti-poet Plato and stopping off for brief conversations with Shelley, Wordsworth, Stevens, Eliot and even Louise Glück, Parini gives us a generous, knowledgeable tour of why poetry matters to us now.  Parini is a scintillating guide to the unfathomable, and he will be welcomed both by poets and by anyone intrigued—or baffled—by poetry.  This is the perfect hip-pocket compendium of signposts to Poetryland."—Molly Peacock, poet and creative nonfiction writer, author of Cornucopia: New & Selected Poems.

"If you are going to tell Jay Parini that poetry doesn't matter, you should probably start working on your debate points now—he's got a lot more."—Jessie Forand, Burlington Free Press

"Clear, unpretentious, witty prose makes his tour of poetry both entertaining and enlightening. Anyone interested in the history of poetry will benefit from this book, whose slim dimensions belie its range and ambition. English professors looking for a textbook that explains what poetry is and how students can benefit from reading it should order Why Poetry Matters for their classes."—Henry Hart, Sewanee Review

'Why Poetry Matters offers itself as a timely, passionate defence of the poetic. The book ranges far and wide with chapters on poetry's engagement with voice, metaphor, tradition, politics, religion, and the natural world.' — Matthew Bevis, Modernism/Modernity Vol.17


Praise for Jay Parini
"Jay Parini is an ambitious poet whose quiet voice belies his achievement. That achievement is to have taken poetry back to his source, to bring the classical spirit of subtlety and independence into American poetry just when it needs it most."—Christian Science Monitor

"Jay Parini is a commanding presence on the page, whether writing in poetry or prose."—Donna Seaman, Booklist
ISBN: 9780300124231
Publication Date: April 22, 2008
224 pages, 5 1/4 x 7 3/4