Does poetry matter?

The 19th annual Great American Think-Off debate was held on Saturday, June 11. The topic this year was “Does Poetry Matter?” I was one of the four finalists who debated the issue.

As I walked up to the Whistle Stop B&B, the best (and only) place to stay in New York Mills, Jann Lee, the proprietress came out to greet me. She looked down — she’s an imposing woman, at least 6 feet 2 — and asked, “Are you one of the Thinkers?” I thought about it and said, “Yes.”  “Which side are you on?” “I’m on the pro side…  of course poetry matters!” “No it doesn’t. Your room is upstairs to the right.”

Uh oh.

The Great American Think-Off (GATO for short) bills itself as America’s “premiere amateur philosophy contest.” Each year they choose a topic, put out the word and get hundreds of essays from all over the country. In a blind judging (no names or addresses) they pick four — two on each side of the question — to come to town for a live debate. The audience chooses a winner who gets a gold medal and title of “America’s Greatest Thinker” for the year.

Marsh Muirhead, a dentist from Bemidji, was the other finalist arguing the pro side. He thought poetry mattered because “it is the spiritual language of our one human family.” I argued that poetry matters to a lot of different kinds of people (like the Southwest Journal poets) and matters at the most important times of our lives (weddings, funerals, when we’re grieving, when we’re in love).

Bob Levine, a lawyer and entrepreneur from New York City, argued that poetry is simply a medium, “like whistling” and that it mattered “as much as a stick lying on the side of the road — an insignificant object of virtually no value.” Mahmood Tabaddor, an engineer with Underwriter’s Laboratory from near Detroit, argued that poetry used to matter but society has degraded to the point that, while poetry is important, it doesn’t matter any more.

An audience of about 200 people chose Marsh and Mahmood to compete in the final round, an intense hour of penetrating questions and excellent arguments. In the end the vote went our way: YES, poetry DOES matter. We got our medals and adjourned to the NY Mills Cultural Center for a late evening reception of good wine, good food and stimulating conversation. The finalist’s essays are at www.think-off.org.

The Think-Off is a delightful, unusual affair. It’s exhilarating to discuss ideas that go beyond the weather, American Idol and the usual minutiae of our conversations … and to find this happening in a small town in rural Minnesota. If you get the chance, go see a GATO. And stay at the Whistle Stop. It’s 50 yards from the railroad tracks. When the trains go by (which they do very 20 minutes), the whole house shakes.

Doug Wilhide edits the Southwest Journal Poetry Project and is the Poet Laureate of Linden Hills.