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Perhaps you have heard: First Things has started a poetry prize. You can read about the submission requirements here. We will select two winning poems for publication and award the poets with a cash prize, thanks to a generous gift from the Tim & Judy Rudderow Foundation. We are thrilled to have Amit Majmudar serve as the prize’s inaugural outside judge.

You may be wondering, why have we started a poetry prize now? After all, isn’t the country going to hell in a handbasket? Anti-Semitism runs amok on college campuses, young children are sexualized in schools, political activism endangers the rule of law, babies are still aborted in alarming numbers, parental rights are everywhere infringed upon, the freedom of speech is overtly attacked, and on it goes. Perhaps when the country is no longer in crisis, conservatives can turn their attention to poetry and the arts, but now there are more important things to do—or so the argument sometimes goes.

Yet as the First Things founding editorial statement puts it, “the first thing to be said about public life is that public life is not the first thing.” This means, of course, that “politics is, in largest part, an expression of culture, and at the heart of culture is religion.” But it also means that to treat politics as if it were a first thing, as if it were the main thing in life, is to get life quite wrong.

Poetry is not a first thing either, but it is a thing of great value. It reminds us that a life devoted exclusively to practical concerns is not a good one. It teaches us that without order, there is no variation, and that without variation—which is a kind of risk—there is no joy. Conservatives should know this. They should have been the primary defenders of the other things in life, like poetry, at a time when politics reigns supreme. They haven’t. It’s time they did.

Poetry may shape how we view the world, and thus prove politically useful. But to read it for this utility alone is to read it for the most superficial of reasons. What do we “get” from Catharine Savage Brosman’s poem “Dust Bowl” (March 2023), for example, other than the experience of the poem itself, which recasts suffering in high—and tragic—relief? What is the “utility” of Ben Myers’s “Our Daughter Beside the Sea: Blue Hill, Maine” (June 2024) other than to articulate the truth that all parents know but rarely express: that our children will all leave us and that this is both a second birth and an early death? D. S. Martin’s “Peregrine Falcon” (March 2024) offers no “useful” message, but it captures the paradox of the human heart:

But you O Lord are like a bird of prey
whose talons I would not try to resist
When caught I will not try to get away
when held by you I’ll pray that you’ll persist
O hold me Lord while I am here below
then lift me up for I’ll be glad to go

Ezra Pound got a lot of things wrong in life, but he was surely right when he wrote in How to Read that “the function of literature as a generated prize-worthy force is precisely that it does incite humanity to continue living.” It does this simply by reminding us what life is—by presenting us with what Robert Penn Warren called an “adventure in selfhood.” A great poem, Warren said, “wakes us up to our own life.”

If that’s not reason enough to start a poetry prize, I don’t know what is. We are accepting submissions until June 30.

Micah Mattix is the poetry editor of First Things and a professor of English at Regent University.

Image by PickPik in the Public Domain. Image cropped.

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