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Elizabeth Alexander – poet, educator, memoirist, scholar, and arts activist – is president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the nation's largest funder in arts and culture, and humanities in[…]

Elizabeth Alexander on the poet’s duty.

Question: Have poets done themselves a disservice by writing too abstractly?

Alexander:    Poets, as far as I’m concerned, can do whatever they want as long as they do it well and then put it out there and let people find it.  Maybe 3 people find it, maybe 3,000 people find it, maybe 3 million people find it but the poets job to my mind, the artists job is to be true to his or her sense of voice and then whatever rules are established for the poems itself to execute those rules at the highest level, you know, that’s how you measure the success or the accomplishment of a poem, so Wallace Stevens, the first lines of “Sunday Morning,” “Complacencies of the peignoir…” well, you know, heh?  But it’s an amazing phrase, “Complacencies of the peignoir.” You can say it over and over again and it kind of morphs and changes and makes you ask and think and wonder.  The word “peignoir” is a fabulous word and poetry can sort of wash over you and be a very visceral experience even if it is abstract in the sense of, you know, not conveying straightforward and immediately identifiable meeting.  Poems are not the newspaper.  So while sometimes, poems impart absolutely clear information, that is not their charge and so what I would like to see is an increased tolerance and curiosity of the different kinds of ways of being excellent in different sorts of language.