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This article is taken from PN Review 17, Volume 7 Number 3, January - February 1981.

Poetry and Politics Roger Scruton

THERE are many ways of enjoying poetry, and many ways of destroying enjoyment through a misplaced didacticism. However, despite Wilde's doctrine that all art is absolutely useless, despite all those conceptions, from Kant to modern expressionism, which have tended to the views that art is 'without purpose', a form of 'play', an activity of 'intuition' divorced from conceptual or instructive aims, it is no more possible now than it has ever been to think of poetry as bearing pleasurable but slight relation to the world. We should beware of taking the many theories that declare the 'uselessness' of poetry too literally. If poetry is useless, it is in the way that friendly conversation is useless; which is to say that it has no purpose besides itself. Friendship is valuable; so too is the conversation through which it finds enactment. But the value of friendship is not an aim which determines every moment of a conversation.

In like manner, art has a value, but this value generates no purpose to be pursued in every artistic gesture. The purposelessness of art is external, like the purposelessness of words in a conversation. But art is as significant as conversation, and owes its significance to the absence of an external use. The difference between poetry and propaganda is like the difference between polite conversation and the bargaining which precedes a contract. Bargaining contains its polite components, but these vanish with the failure of the purpose. They are embellishments, indispensable only because ...


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