An art that doubts or lowballs its own worth may also doubt the wisdom of anyone’s choice to devote a whole life to that art. It may address an audience itself not wholly devoted to poetry, an audience that has made the wiser choice. Such an art must acknowledge not only that it can learn from, but that it might deserve to lose, the competition for time and attention and energy that poetry mounts against any more practical endeavor: child care, certainly, but also the pursuit of public good through electoral politics, the transportation of freight by road, river, and rail, or the practice of medicine...
Devoted to an art that is easy to make, but very hard to make well, and not often prominent (as against, say, films or novels) even when it is made very well, we poets, we critics, we serious readers of poetry too often respond to inconsequence with self-importance: we generate interminable arguments about how much poetry “matters,” about how it can indeed “make something happen.” I do not mean to dismiss all such arguments (I agree with some of them). I do fear that they can lead us to overestimate the powers, and the moral weight, of poetry, and perhaps to neglect other goods, other obligations (including the laundry).
Poetry... isn’t worthless, but it is worth less than many poets and readers believe: however much we like it, it may not merit all the claims it can make on our time. There are more important things. That I feel so... does not mean that I want to get you to feel that way too; it means that I want to think about how such feelings manifest themselves in art. If we are to see this feeling for what it is — sometimes oppressive, sometimes unwelcome, sometimes a welcome consequence when a writer with obligations... has his or her head screwed on right — we ought to be able to see its aesthetic effects, the ways it can change the art that does get made.
- Stephen Burt, from his article "Art v. Laundry" over at the Poetry Foundation. You can read the whole thing here.