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Is Poetry Undemocractic?, 16 Georgia State University Law Review 311 (1999)


This article explores the relation between poetry and democracy, or more exactly, the relation between the feelings and attitudes that poetry encourages, on the one hand, and the moral beliefs that democracy presupposes, on the other.

The latter are egalitarian. Every moral defense of democracy starts from the simple but compelling idea that each adult person is entitled to an equal say in the government of his or her political community. Democracy can, of course, be defended on non-moral grounds, for example, as the most efficient way of promoting prosperity or of achieving peace among those with conflicting desires and faiths. But to the extent it is conceived in moral terms, democracy always leads back to the idea of equality—to the notion that all citizens have an equal right to political participation based upon their equal claim to recognition and respect, or their common status as free persons.

By contrast, poetry can easily seem non- or even anti-egalitarian. I do not mean merely that poetry and other high literary arts employ forms of expression more refined than those of ordinary speech, which a person must be educated to enjoy and whose pleasures are therefore available only to an elite of wealth or training. This may or may not be the case, but there is a more serious reason for thinking that poetry is undemocratic. It is plausible to think that poetry is undemocratic not just on account of its difficulty or refinement, but because even in ordinary men and women it gratifies pleasures of an undemocratic kind. If this is true, then poetry and democracy conflict in a way that no program of universal education can repair. They conflict fundamentally, and those who love both must choose between them.

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