Monday, February 4, 2008

Reflections on the Death of Poetry

This is a frequent topic on the poetry boards I participate in and monitor. Poetry, if not dead, is minutes away from expiring. People don't buy it; people don't read it; newspapers don't print it and don't print reviews of it. Poets no longer have influence as they once did. The debate is heated on what has caused this. Some say competing entertainments, such as movies, television, and the internet has drawn off all but the most dedicated readers. Others say that poetry is imploding, due to the dominance of masters of fine arts (MFA) programs and how they produce poets just like their instructors, who are just like their instructors, thus resulting in a similarity of poetry that is strangling. Others say that the poetry community at large is to blame, that they are writing poetry that no one but other poets (or other MFA grads) want to read.

I think it is a combination of these. Many more entertainments exist than, say, when Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot were starting their careers--pre radio, pre television, etc. Entertainment in the home consisted of reading, and little else. Poetry was among the items read. But why does poetry not compete well with television, et al? I think it's because poetry, as the most compressed type of language, requires the greatest use of brain power of all the written arts. Prose requires less, visual arts less still, motive visual arts even less. So when faces with a choice of brain-taxing poetry reading or mindless sexually-oriented sitcoms most people choose the sitcoms.

However, I do find fault with poets for not providing a product their audience wants. I have always been partial to poems with rhyme and meter (or rhythm), but it seems poets and their marketing outlets (many of which are MFA-led "literary" journals) find fault with rhyme and meter, and go for free verse exclusively. The vast majority of the people simply don't like free verse. Why? I think Screwtape (see my last post) answered that. People have a love of change, while at the same time a love of permanence or stability. God fulfills that through rhymthm. The seasons change, but always come back to each other year after year. Daylight follows darkness. Low tide follows high tide. In poetry, rhyme and meter in poems to specific forms seem most enjoyable to the largest group of people. Yet, about the same time radio came in, the poets en-massse began moving away from rhyme and meter. Hence, in the face of a shrinking market, the poets turned their backs on what that shrinking market wanted.



Mary DeMuth said...

Hey, David, I answered your question at the CAN blog about how to get professionals to read your stuff. You can see the answer here:

Mary DeMuth

Richard said...

I, with you, think there are probably many reasons that poetry has fallen on hard times. One major reason, in my opinion, is that it takes time to read, reflect, digest, and enjoy poetry...something that you alluded to...but, it seems that our time is rather squeezed these days. We fill our days with activity - it is rare to find the contemplative in this modern, moving, changing culture.

I'm in total agreement with your Lewis allusion, though. Human beings inherently desire both change and permanence - that inner desire for eternity, peace, rest. Poetry does, in many cases at least, foster an engagement with the deeper levels of life and thought - again, it seems we simply live in a shallow culture - yet I think the desire for depth has not disappeared. If a poet is able to tap into that very human need in ways that connect with people in this current culture, I don't see any reason why there wouldn't be a resurgence of popularity for that kind of poetry.

Then again, one could argue - I suppose - that some forms of poetry are popular when set to music...I'm not sure it is the same thing, however, I do love Charles Wesley's hymns which all began as poems (if I remember correctly, he wrote over 7,000 poems in his life time - and only a few were set to music - but it does seem that those are the ones that have endured over time...there is just something about collectively singing and reciting such verse).

Good is something that needs to be explored more because I think it says something important about our culture and time. Blessings ~ RLS

David A. Todd said...


Thanks for providing me with that link. I went there and posted a follow-up. I still think knowing whether your writing is good enough for publication is the hardest item on the list you provided.

David A. Todd said...


Thanks for the post.

I may have Lewis on the brain right now, the result of finishing The Screwtape Letters study, but I really, really liked what he had to say about rhythm being God's way of fulfilling those competing human desires of change and permanence.

Poetry, among all the arts, requires the highest use of brainpower, the performing arts perhaps the least, with television being the low end of that candle.

Charles Wesley wrote some amazing song lyrics. I don't know how many of his poems were lyrics, how many were stand-alone poems. Generally poetry and song lyrics, while obviously related, are two different arts. I remember hearing (or reading) that Charles Wesley would take a bar room song popular at the time, and set it to Christian lyrics. Can you imagine "Hark, The Herald Angels Sing" being sung in a bar to bawdy lyrics?