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May 2016
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Lewis Turco

Poetry is Not a Widget: The Priceless is Right

A Jenny Holzer plaque showing a poem engraving. (Photo by gredaline on Flickr.) Courtesy of MIT OpenCourse on Reading

Poetry is Not a Widget: The Priceless is Right

by Alena Hairston

Suggested listening: Alice Coltrane, The Impulse Story

I write this now listening to the late harpist, pianist, organist, virtuoso Alice Coltrane cast spells in her ethereal “Journey in Satchidananda.” I am privileged to have seen her perform with her son Ravi and members of the original John Coltrane Quartet in San Francisco, November 2006, one of only two performances before her untimely death, and after her protracted spiritual reclusion from the stage and the public. For me, her music, especially this exquisite creation, is an analogue for the best of poetry: deft in its experimentation and breadth; precise in its openness; welcoming of warmth, musicality, emotion; wise in its scaffolding of history; innocent in its play; and, generous to both the creator and her audience for, as a work of high craft, when the work is ineffable, one is still encouraged to explain it for there is always something familiar in the seeming unfamiliar, always something intimate in the deepening canvas of seeming generalized experience. As a writer and artist myself, I know that Alice Coltrane did not choose her craft. Her craft chose her. And we are most grateful for this arranged marriage!

I speak to the luminosity of Alice Coltrane because her body of work as well as her actual life illustrate the profound gifts art offers the mundanity, discord, and ravages of daily human life. At this time in our present history, the public display of contempt for intellectual vibrancy and its artistic articulation in the verbal, written, visual, and musical arts is at an all-time high. One can look anywhere in our mainstream landscape and find disparagement of that which is sophisticated, complex, and beautiful in the way only the search for truth, wisdom, and humanity can be. This attack has now infiltrated the very protectorates of art, intellectual integrity, humane humanity, and those who teach and live within such purview: public colleges and universities. Specific attacks are now being waged upon disciplines that encourage free thinking, intellectual diversity, and artistic expression, especially humanities and arts.

Because of the current groupthink among powerful decision-makers such as private industry moguls, government officials, and college and university administrators, all of whom are now forming alliances for profit-centered, assembly-line educational models, then certainly those courses and disciplines most vulnerable are those that provide intellectual space for human expression and possibility, not profit generation. Nationally there are stories of humanities, arts, and social science courses being cancelled or usurped. There are now instances where entire programs such as creative writing or music appreciation are being discontinued. When colleges and universities become businesses and teachers become sales executives, then students become products, commodities for sale in the market of linear conformity. This sabotage will result in intellectual docility and, most disturbingly, artistic death. Without art, culture does not survive.

Musical compositions, philosophical dissertations, visual arts, and poems are not widgets. Humanity is not a widget. Though the leadership efforts are dramatically in this direction, human experience – and the minds creating it – are not yet entirely for sale. Poetry is an acute reminder and reclamation of that which can never be bought or sold: truth, justice, generosity, compassion, beauty, and love.

Thus, the open education movement provides critical resistance to such nefarious profiteering by making art – especially written art – widely accessible and free. Moreover, because poetry is the elegant articulation, defense, and honor of organic experience, its accessible and free status via the open course environment ought to remind wayward educational profiteers that there are better, creative, humane ways to save and generate money in the noble profession of education. For artists and teachers, the issue is moot: art is human and humane. Art, simply, is self-sustaining.

There are some fantastic things happening in literary arts inside and outside academia. Yet, the most robust resources are housed and nurtured by academic institutions. There are ample offerings in traditional and experimental poetics, within a variety of platforms, such as open courses, open formats, institutional programs, electronic archives and magazines, digitized books and papers, and the viral glee of social networking technologies. Below the closing poem is a brief listing of innovative resources, by no means exhaustive. Please use and share generously.

In acknowledgment of the redemptive and restorative energies that poetry gives the world, I will close with one of my favorite poems by Lewis Turco. This poem is written in the Japanese form called Somonka, an epistolary love poem made up of two tankas, an extension of the haiku, wherein each tanka follows a line syllable count of 5-7-5-7-7. The first tanka is a statement of love, and the second is a response.



Epistles: The Tarot IX of Swords

I am writing you

from a pit. It is quite dark

here. I see little.

I am scratching this note on a stone.

Where are you? It has been long.

Thank you for your note.

I do not know where I am.

I believe I may

be with you. It is not dark

here. The light has blinded me.

–Lewis Turco, Poetry Magazine, July 1972


Open Licensed Internet Resources for Poetry


MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Courses (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license)




The Open University (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license)




Free but not open Internet Resources for Poetry


The Poetry Archive (copyright license)



The Internet Archive – search for “poetry” (copyright license)



Electronic Poetry Center at New York State University, Buffalo (copyright license)