Friday 3 July 2015

Reader's Question: Why is poetry no longer important to Western society?

Reader's Question: Poetry was an important part of the intellectual life and literature for every society which we have records. But not ours. What has happened?

My Response: A good question.


On the one hand, to put it crudely: there are no modern poets worth reading, so it would be absurd to regard poetry as an important thing in contemporary life.

Of course I am only talking about English language - but since 1985, all the really significant English poets have been dead. None have emerged to take their places.

There have been vast attempts to promote and popularize poetry through multiple media - books have been sold, careers made, 'creative writing' professors abound where there were none in 85 - but there are no important poems or poets.


On the other hand, there are no serious readers of poetry. Well, not so many nor so serious as they used to be.

There are not so many people who read poems, qua poems (they read them as socio-political statements or exemplars),. There are not many people, not even so many as when I was young, who are powerfully moved by poems - carry small volumes of verse or walk around with poems running in their heads in the way that was so common one or two hundred years ago. Romanticism is both weaker and rarer.


If it was just poetry, I will think this was random fluctuation - because there are never many real poets, and there have been earlier periods in England (although not for about 400 years, since Elizabethan times) when we lacked any 'major' living poets.

But there have been similar collapses of genius in classical music, fine art and pretty much everywhere except novels. So the collapse of significant poetry must be partly related to the decline and disappearance of geniuses-in-general which has been seen in all Western activities.

And this is probably due to tidal genetic changes, in particular the decline of intelligence: because to be a major poet requires extremely high intelligence as well as several other unusual qualities, and there are very few people capable of it - in the past two hundred years very few has reduced to (almost) 'none'.

This in itself is not surprising, but is striking in England, which used to excel in poetry - and was a nest of lyrical songbirds for hundreds of years.


But a major factor which has affected poetry, along with the arts in general, has been destructive abstraction: the incremental sowing of confusion in the minds of readers and poets about what poetry is.

Poetry is primarily supposed to be memorable, indeed it is literally supposed to be easily memorizable - poetry was originally the way in which an oral (non-literate) culture passed on words. That is the prime directive.

So poetry must have something like regular rhythm, regular rhyme, or regular alliteration - because regularity is what make it memorizable.


But generations of school children and students have been trained to believe that poetry is anything written in short-ish lines; even when it lacks any kind of regularity of other aids to memory.

I was fortunate to be encouraged, as a young school-kid -  to write 'dreadful doggerel' - in other words poems that rhymed and scanned. One consequence is that I still remember some of it!

(All children's poems are dreadful - but at least doggerel is memorably dreadful.)

Small kids are instead encouraged to write 'poems' which are just flowery expressive ejaculations. Older kids and students are encouraged to read the likes of Whitman, or TS Eliot, or post-WW II 'poets' whose 'poems' lack any obviously discernible structural regularity.

The good modernist not-poems, of course, do have principles of construction, and of course some of them are worthwhile or even major writings. But they are not really poetry - or else they should be regarded as extreme 'sports' of poetry - rare and weird, exceptions rather than setting the rule.


So poetry is no longer important because people have become hopelessly confused about what a poem is. Even cultural conservatives do not want to lose William Blake's prophetic verse, Whitman, or Eliot, or Seamus Heaney - and in order to accommodate these and similar writings which break the prime directive of poetry; they have left the whole subject of poetry deeply confused.

It is much clearer and simpler not to call this kind of writing poetry, and not to call this kind of writer poets. And this chucks-out nearly all of the completely unmemorable stuff which gets published by modern poetry presses, and chucks out nearly all of the people who get called poets. 

Whether something that has regular rhythm, rhymes or alliteration is any good is another matter - most of it isn't. But unless is does one of these, then it isn't poetry, and the person who does it isn't a poet.

The century-long, and still not finished, modernist obsession with definition, redefinition, and pushing at the boundaries of definition of 'art' - including poetry - is rightly regarded as utterly boring and pretentious by sensible people with lives to lead. 


Until people are clear about what poetry is, from childhood, then there will not be any good poetry and readers - en masse -  will continue to be indifferent to what gets called poems written by people labelled as poets.

We cannot expect to have good poems, or people who regard poems as important, when we misunderstand what poetry actually is.

And until we understand that what poetry actually is, is not a matter of opinion, but a matter of what works.



Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Reading such "poets" as E. E. Cummings, Gertrude Stein, and Allen Ginsberg as a teenager left me so confused as to think that poetry was characterized by "breaking the rules" -- that the main reason to write verse rather than prose was that it set you free from the constraints of ordinary syntax, giving you free rein to "express yourself." Now, of course, after having discovered real poetry (years after, and no thanks to, my formal education), I can see that the truth is precisely the opposite: poetry means more constraints, not fewer -- and it is largely the constraints themselves that serve to push the mind out of the ordinary ruts of thought and (God willing) into the realm of the sublime.

Santoculto said...

Singers and mainstream music composers today are, many them, like ordinary poets.

141 said...

the purpose is prestige,
but if providence hasn't provided,
to the ivy towers lay siege,
and prop the pedestrian on a pedestal

Leo said...

Two thoughts:

I believe Charles Williams described the history of poetry as "David to Dante, Dante to Donne, since Donne, none."

More seriously, I remember reading or hearing on the radio that back in the Soviet days, Russian poets could say nothing, but what they said meant everything, while in the West, you could say anything, but it meant nothing.