Wednesday, February 23, 2011

James Russell Lowell's "The Function of the Poet"

Though many craftsmen may never ask themselves why it is they've selected their medium of choice (chair builders are content to provide furniture for seating, shipbuilders, to make seaworthy vessels), poets, and especially poets in America, are often haunted with the question, "Why the hell am I writing poetry when there are bills to pay?"

No one can sit on poems; no one can sail with poems, but the truth is poetry is a craft, no different from any other, and a worthy one at that. It may not result in the tangible product that many other pursuits do, but it does result in something.

Lowell's essay, "The Function of the Poet," provides an excellent answer to the "Why the hell..." question, and it explains the importance of the poetic result. It is a necessary read for any aspiring poet.

Russell's "The Function of the Poet"


  1. I will have to give this selection a read. Can it be applied to other art forms as well as poetry? I really do feel guilty "wasting" my time painting or even writing sometimes, but there is a certain satisfaction to be had from the finished product.

  2. I think Lowell's essay can be applied to artists in general really. He writes about poetry because it's his medium, and he uses poets as an example of the sort of "seers" that artists must be to benefit society as a whole.

  3. Put Emerson's "The Poet" up next. Says many of the same things as Lowell, but Emerson, as usual, is issuing a challenge to American poets to use their "own incomparable materials." Very influential on Whitman, who took Emerson's prescriptions to heart.

  4. I'll be sure to do that. Thanks Mr. Gwynn.