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Excerpts from the Preface:
“In its the broadest sense this book is a celebration of the value of poetry, a defense of poetry for our time. Such a defense is not easy to provide in a cultural moment that tends, simultaneously, to think both too much and (as an inevitable consequence of that) too little of poetry: too much, in the sense that its practice and appreciation have been turned over to the experts, the professionals, the poets who write it and the scholars who write about it; too little in the sense that few outside of those professional guilds think it has enough to offer toward the living of one’s life to pay mind to it in any sustained way. Poetry is afflicted by the same status issues that afflict fine art: We are conditioned to believe that it’s a good thing to go and visit it from time to time, in its various museum resting places, but the talents of those who make that art, and the objects they make, seem so far removed from our own lives that mere commemoration (a term I borrow from Martin Heidegger and will come back to from time to time) is our instinctive response.
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One large question I kept before me as I wrote this book is a simple one: What is poetry good for? That question has a very personal significance for me. Poetry—both in the reading, my primary focus in this book, and the writing, a lifelong avocation of mine—is one of the primary means by which I have established my identity, recorded my history, and encoded my intellectual development, as a purely private matter. It has also been the central axis of my professional life since the day in the middle of my junior year in college when I officially changed my major from physics to English. Reading, writing and public speaking (the foundational elements for any English teacher) were hard work for me. But they were what I wanted to spend my time with, and doing. And I have.
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So poetry did make a lot of things happen for me. But this is not a book that hopes to persuade you that poetry should make those same things happen for you. This is not even a book that will try to tell you why you, too, should be reading William Wordsworth, or Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or Walt Whitman, for example (three poets, among many others, I turn and return to make my case) in the ways I have. If it were, right there, already, I’d be turning poets into something I have worked mightily to prevent them from becoming for me: edifying commodities, something above and beyond, more than I ever was, or worse, important only in an academic way. This book is an attempt to counter that more customary way of reading poetry, by recommending another way: not for reading poetry but for reading, and re-reading, poets, these people who invest in their work a seeing, a knowing, a life, that invites us not entirely out of our own, which is impossible, or fully into theirs, which is equally impossible, but into an open area between where we can become somehow more and other than ourselves in an ongoing manner. At such points of transaction life and art engage, even merge, in deeply intimate ways.”