Posted on November 10, 2012 by Joe Sacksteder

One good thing about the gym that I go to is that people are always leaving behind old issues of Harper’s and The New Yorker, allowing me to cancel both of my subscriptions in exchange for getting them like a month or two late. Last week somebody left behind the September 2012 issue of The Sun (score!), and a piece of non-fiction called “Ten Days in November” by Eric Anderson caught my eye. In the first of the ten days, Anderson is addressing an Intro to Poetry class:

The worst thing you can do is talk about how important poetry is. In reality it isn’t all that important. It doesn’t save lives very often (except perhaps the lives of the poets themselves–a fact negated by all the poets that poetry has actually killed). It’s not often inspirational. It doesn’t topple regimes or bring justice. It’s not penicillin. It’s not timeless, because poets fall in and out of favor, and most poems disappear the moment after they’re written, and anyway the whole planet will be devoured by the sun in a few billion years, and when that happens, no one is going to run around screaming, The poetry! Save the Poetry!

The timing was great and it was lousy, because it was–I swear–the night before I planned to step in front of my own Intro Creative Writing class and try to convince them that poetry is indeed important. Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead–a piece of documentary poetics exposing the treachery and pathos surrounding the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster, 1930-1935–is my ultimate trump card for those students who think that the only kind of poetry is the personal expression kind and that all of it is just whining and that we’d all be better off excising the poetry unit from Intro to Creative Writing. I was simultaneously irate with Eric Anderson for hijacking my sermon … and more than a little worried that he was right.

The next day I shared the above quote with my classes and pitifully bartered with Anderson, suggesting that The Book of the Dead is at least as close as we can get to important poetry. But once we got to “Absolom,” a poem in which Rukeyser quotes from heartbreaking court documents to resurrect the voices of the victims, I realized I should have stuck to my sermon. I’ve taught The Book of the Dead to perhaps three hundred students in my time at Eastern Michigan, and perhaps five of them had heard of Hawk’s Nest–arguably the greatest industrial disaster in the history of our country–before our time together in the classroom. And nobody, not one of us, would ever have heard 17-year-old Shirley Jones’s words to his mother:

Mother, when I die,
I want you to open them up and
see if that dust killed me. Try to get compensation,
you will not have any way of making your living
when we are gone,
and the rest are going too.

To me, Anderson’s words come across as impoverished and selfish after reading a work like The Book of the Dead. It’s true that we could all dedicate our lives to scientific and medical causes that might keep our species alive long enough to not scream for the poetry when the earth is devoured by the sun–but this mindset looks at humans as numbers rather than individuals, and it ignores the idea that there are different types of health. Of course William Carlos Williams’s “Asphodel” invaded my mind as I stood there in the gym:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

With Rukeyser we get the news–or history made news again–and the men who died miserably speak again to the living.

It strikes me now that this website, like teaching Rukeyser in the classroom, contributes to an act of re-resurrection for workers like Shirley Jones. “I shall give mouth to my son,” Rukeyser ends the poem “Absolom.” Perhaps this website can give an online mouth to Rukeyser.

What do you think? Is poetry–or any form of art–important?