Best “Letter to the Editor” Ever

Sit back and enjoy Associate Editor Kent Leatham’s on-point response to David Orr’s recent essay in the NY Times:

Reading Transtromer

Published: March 22, 2012

To the Editor:

I can think of nothing less true than David Orr’s concluding statement in his discussion of various translations of the Nobel Prize-winning poet Tomas Transtromer (“On Poetry: Versions,” March 11): “We read poetry for entertainment, not nutritional value.”

Not only is poetry today not being read for entertainment (as its lack of sales on any best-seller list will attest, not to mention its once-a-month-if-we’re-lucky appearance in The Times Book Review), but poetry as a genre has never been meant to be non-nutritive. Challenging, perhaps. Hard to translate with accuracy, certainly. But Marshmallow Fluff?

Poetry “begins in delight and ends in wisdom” (Robert Frost). It reclaims the “awareness of the world” (Allen Ginsberg). It strikes the reader “as a wording of his own highest thoughts” (John Keats). “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses” (John F. Kennedy).

Transtromer, a trained psychologist (as Orr notes) who has worked with convicts, addicts and the disabled, described his poetry as seeking “a kind of meaning in being present, in using reality, . . . in making something of it.” Surely this approach suggests a literary nutritional value of the highest Recommended Dietary Allowance, not the empty calories of superficial entertainment.


2 responses to “Best “Letter to the Editor” Ever

  1. mark schwatka

    Dear Mr. Leatham – thank you so much for your letter to the Times last week in defense of the importance of poetry to those of us for whom it is the tool by which we ‘make something’ of reality in order not to waste the precious gift of our consciousness and existence,
    Mark Schwatka

  2. Thanks for the honor of posting my letter here, and thanks, Mr. Schwatka, for your gracious and thoughtful reply. I am glad that my small words were able to help validate the art, craft, energy, and essence of the poetic enterprise.

    (For the record, I ought to note that I mostly enjoyed with the other 99% of Orr’s original review; it was just the single sentence about nutrition that seemed shockingly untenable.)

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