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Is Poetry Dying? | Higher Ed Gamma

A freshman dormmate won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry nearly a decade ago.  His book sold, according to the last count that I saw, 353 copies.

Sure, there is at least one young contemporary poet, Amanda Gorman, whose name the educated public might recognize, along with such stalwarts as Maya Angelou, John Ashbery, and John Betjeman. A few might know the name of today’s biggest seller, Billy Collins, who some compare to Rod McKuen, the best-selling poet of the late 1960s.  But most books of poetry by leading poets, with scant exceptions, sell fewer than 100 copies.  My dormmate’s book only sold 11 copiesbefore the prize announcement.

The days when school children were required to memorize long passages from Romantic and Victorian poetry are, alas, over. My poem, by the way, was “The Wreck of the Schooner Hesperus” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  I can still quote passages on demand. 

While the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2017 Survey of Public Participation in the Artsclaimed that 28 million Americans (two-thirds women) had read a poem in the last year and CNN proclaims that “Poetry is experiencing a new golden age,” one would have to have a heart of stone not to scoff. 

The share of adults who said that they had read a poem (not plural) not for school or work, 12 percent in 2017, was nearly a third less than in 1992.

I sometimes ask myself who was the last poet who ordinary American adults might quote?  Was it Dylan Thomas (“Do not go gently into that goodnight”)?  William Butler Yeats (“Things fall apart”)? Robert Frost (“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood”?  Allen Ginsberg (“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed”)?  Or was it Carl Sandburg or Gertrude Stein or Stephen Vincent Benét or e.e. cummings or  Robert Frost or  Langston Hughes or  Vachel Lindsay or T.S. Eliot?

I fear that the correct answer might be none of the above.  We might have to go back to the nineteenth century: to Poe or Tennyson or Emerson or Emma Lazarus or Julia Ward Howe or James Whitcomb Riley or Clement Clarke Moore.

So, what happened?  Is it that poet songwriters seized the mantle?  Or is something else going on?

An opinion piece in The New York Times entitled “Poetry Died 100 Years Ago This Month” blames T.S. Eliot for poetry’s fall from grace. It was in 1922 that The Waste Land appeared, signaling the triumph of modernist poetry in English.

Eliot, according to the essay’s author, Matthew Walther, not only made poetry more academic, obscure, and abstruse and stripped of rhyme and meter, he  broke the link between poetry and nature, erasing poetry’s concern with the transcendent and the sublime.  In Walther’s words: “The culprit,” in poetry’s increasing marginalization, “is not bad pedagogy or formal experimentation but rather the very conditions of modern life, which have demystified and alienated us from the natural world.”

Not surprisingly, contemporary poetry’s defenders pushed back hard, asserting that only a traditionalist could ignore the contributions not only of such poetic luminaries as Marianne Moore, Louise Gluck, Denise Levertov, Elizabeth Bishop, Maxine Kumin, Adrienne Rich, Gwendolyn Brook, Wallace Stevens, James Merrill, Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery, Nikki Giovanni, Leonard Cohen, Anne Sexton, Ted Hughes, and Wendell Berry, but a host of others.

The collective hunger for poetry, their comments insisted, can be found in poetry slams and poetry festivals and in those, old and young, who write poetry privately.  After all, just a few weeks earlier the Times reported on an Urdu poetry festival celebrated by 300,000 amateur and professional poets.

Still others rejected the idea that writing about nature is somehow a prerequisite for poetry. 

Then, there were those who argued that poetry lurks all around us.  It flourishes not only in the music of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell or in rap and hip hop, but on subway posters, in religious incantations, and often in political speeches, and other formats.

Op eds these days are intended to provoke, annoy, and bait clicks. But sometimes they do something more than ignite hail storms of controversy. They prompt a genuine, much needed cultural conversations, for instance, about the status of poetry in contemporary society. 

Critics accused the op ed’s author of ignoring evidence of poetry’s enduring popularity, including the 30 million visits to the Poetry.org website, and conflating poetry with sentimental romanticism, offering an “elegiac wistfulness for a vanished past and implicit scorn of the present,” and failing to recognize that a host of poets continue to transform words into art, through rap, for example, and graffiti tags.

Among the most vociferous criticisms is that the author was blind to the new generation of poets — Black, Latino, indigenous, LGBTQ+ , and more — who are creating wholly new kinds of narrative poems and hybrid forms that cross over into drama and music, “Poets like Robert Hass, Louise Gluck, Sonia Sanchez, Orlando White, they all plow forward creating new sounds, images…”. 

In another comment’s words:  “There are many fine poets writing in new and old verse forms as well as open forms speaking directly of life in our times, telling stories and engaged with language as music and expression of thoughts and feelings, not just art for arts sake, or technique for technique’s sake. Maybe try Jane Hirschfeld or Robert Hass or Yusef Komunyakaa or Terrance Hayes or Ross Gay or Sharon Olds….”

Another telling point: “Baroque music and ragtime and bebop are all dead, but music isn’t.  Maybe a particular kind of poetry is dead because Eliot left nowhere to go with it.”

Then, there are those who condemn contemporary poetry as “volumes of confessional drivel,” “turgid prose broken up into random stanzas, “ in which “too much of the language is flat, vernacular, and like a dreadful text message.”

Why did an op-ed on T.S. Eliot touch a nerve?

  • Because it speaks to the fear that we are becoming a nation of boors, boobs, and buffoons, who are increasingly incapable of deep reading and appreciating language and discourse in their beauty and complexity. It’s striking that even most mainstream newspapers and magazines neither print nor review poetry.
  • Because of a sense that grade schools and colleges now downplay and even denigrate the arts on the altar of simplistic conceptions of literacy and numeracy and privilege marketable fields like business, the sciences, and technology over the realm of culture.
  • Because there’s no social cachet associated with knowing poetry. It’s no longer “something the middle class aspired towards, as a way of improving themselves and showing off their education.”
  • Because poetry now competes with other, simpler, easier to consume, commercial forms of expression that don’t involve the intricacies of rhyme, rhythm, meter, simile, sounds, subtexts, and metaphor. As one comment reads: “As Don Delillo pointed out in his 1985 novel (whose film adaptation I’m hearing missed the mark), we’re sinking deeper and deeper into an era of white noise.”
  • Because a culture of immediate gratification emphasizes stimulation and excitement over more complex and ambiguous experiences, fun over joy, sensationalism, sexualization, and eye and ear candy over things deeper, subtler, and more sophisticated. Ours, after all, is a culture of OxyContin, dopamine, adrenaline, and cocaine.

Several responses to the Times’ essay were critiques of modernism. As one comment put it: “Poetry died when the poets stopped writing rhyming lines with coherent theme.”  Others argued that Eliot’s verses symbolized a shift in poetry’s very essence: from a poems meant to be recited or sung and felt to a poetry intended to be read closely and analytically.

Wrote yet another critic: “modernism killed painting and music as well. ‘Serious’ art became academic and ‘experimental’ and audience be damned. Even when it worked — as it certainly did in Eliot’s case — it was too difficult for many…. Interestingly, art for the masses remained unscathed. It still had to attract a paying audience. Imagine that…. So now we have a conundrum — a serious poet who returns to the traditional forms will be drummed out of the academy, so no one will read him. I can only think, with Winston Smith, that hope is in the proles.”

Others blamed modern society for poetry’s decline: “The modern brain no longer flows linguistic. We speak in  cinematic images. Memes, not mantras. Soundtracks, not sonority. Devolving further into the aping jerks of Tiks and Toks.”

“What died,” ran another comment, “is the desire to read poems of others. There is no culture of poetry, no market or viable venue—not even of the worst kind: slam poetry.”

Several condemned MFA programs for stripping poetry of its ability to speak to the common reader. “What killed poetry,”  one writer asserted, “was a combination of absurd academic self-indulgence and the wholesale rejection of meter and rhyme, analagous to atonality in modernist music.”  Thanks to MFA programs, modern poetry has supposedly become too esoteric, abstract, obscure, self-indulgent, and self-referential.

Such programs, claimed one comment, treat poems as objects “to be dissected and examined, rather than to be known, remembered and given voice to.” Poetry “lost its ancient populist roots, and prioritized the idea of cleverness and detachment over power and beauty.”

Still others insisted that science is now the true path to the poetic.  One reader cited a Richard Dawkins quotation: “Science is the poetry of reality.”  That’s an argument another reader made:

“Our language lives still. Encode, in clauses, the new, nearly ineffable. Imagine the simultaneity of entanglement, the dance of quarks. Look not merely to the stars, but to the precious photons of that tiny speck landing on our golden Webb, having sought, over their 12 billion year journey, our knowing retina, cartwheeling through the unfolding path of time. In a century, fusion will illuminate, propel, cultivate, analyze, nurture and enliven this world. That is not long, compared to the photons’ journey. Turn poetry forward.”

Quipped yet another reader: “All STEM and no poetry makes Jack a dull boy.”

Clearly, the essay serves as a Rorschach test, a vehicle for broader critiques and insights into the culture as a whole.

What stands out most to me are the impassioned defenses of poetry. One commentator described poetry’s value in particularly gripping terms:

“Poetry is a method of “seeing”. No other mode can deploy so many ways of associative knowing (from philosophy, science, music, art, etc–where nothing is excluded but fully integrated). The fact that people still think poetry’s about pretty words or provides ‘a short-cut through hell’ or an easy prophylactic against the fall of Earth is a loss to everyone who understands how much this world needs such knowledge.”

The Times’ essay is perhaps best read as is a lament about modernity’s consequences: what Weber called the disenchantment of the world, people’s estrangement and alienation from nature, the loss of the transcendent and the sublime and of spirituality in the wake of two world wars and the triumph of “a soulless ideology of anti-naturalism, capitalist self-indulgence, mechanistic science,” and bureaucratic and technical rationality.

The First World War, in particular, reinforced, and redirected a revolution in human consciousness that was already underway — a revolution in physics and optics, painting and sculpture, that would soon transform music and the novel and other modes of cultural expression, including poetry. Even the Romantic quest to re-enchant nature lost much of its power when confronted with the horrors of trench warfare.

Today, no one would claim that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world — even though on some level we recognize that words have the power, as Shelley wrote “In Defence of Poetry,” to create “new materials of knowledge, and power and pleasure.”

However many adults still love poetry, the sad fact is that it is no longer a popular art form.  It has become, alas, a niche interest. It doesn’t occupy the same space in peoples’ lives or in schooling that it once did. Like Broadway show tunes, poems no longer give voice to people’s deepest longings, emotions, thoughts, and values.

If poetry is dying, it’s ultimately because, as one commenter put it, this society has “lost the upward gaze,” in Robert Bly’s poignant phrase — language’s power to evoke awe and transcendence, once manifest not only In poems but in religious and political oratory as well. That is surely a loss we should all lament, because a society without a capacity for awe, transcendence, sublimity, and self-reflection truly is a society of hollow men.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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