Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Decline of Poetry

I haven't read much poetry since my university English literature classes. (And I haven't written any since I was a lovesick adolescent.) It is generally regarded as axiomatic that to write poetry is to write something that will never make you anything but beer money (if you’re lucky); and this is probably correct. Poetry is something that almost no one reads anymore outside of academia—and this has been the case for decades.

And yet, it wasn't alway so. Prior to the mid-20th century, poets used to enjoy wide followings. Tennyson, Poe, Byron, Shelley, and Coleridge were all read by large numbers of readers during their lifetimes—and this was before they were required subjects in school. 

What happened? Sometime during the mid-twentieth century, it was decided that poetry wasn't any good if it was comprehensible and appealing to ordinary people. And especially if it rhymed. Oh no, the poetry of the post-modern age mustn't rhyme, above all things. 

The result was that poets started writing for English professors and literary critics rather than for ordinary people. Incomprehensible nonsense like Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1955) became the new standard, and the general reader tuned out. 

It’s worth noting that the few modern poets who are still widely read for pleasure adhere to old forms. Robert Frost (1874-1963) wrote accessible verse that almost anyone can relate to, like those familiar lines from “The Road Not Taken”.

I shall be telling this with a sigh 
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I 
I took the one less traveled by, 
And that has made all the difference.

Compare this to an excerpt from the aforementioned “Howl”:

"Who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake—light tragedies among the scholars of war" and "who thought they were only mad when Baltimore gleamed in supernatural ecstasy”

Ginsberg, a beatnik of the early counterculture movement, admitted to heavy narcotics use; and the above lines were supposedly inspired by one of his psychedelic trips. Not all post-modern poets use drugs, of course; but most poetry published since the 1960s is similarly abstruse—a polite word for unstructured and incoherent.

There is still an appetite for verse, to be sure. But now the most popular verse comes from pop music lyrics. 

The lyrics in a popular Bruce Springsteen song, like “Glory Days” (1984) aren't terribly brilliant, but they are accessible. “Glory Days” is a song about a blue-collar man, now trapped in a mundane existence, looking back on the glory days of his high school years. 

That may not be profound, but it is something that many people can relate to—a lot more than Allen Ginsberg’s addled ravings.