Mourning the Decline of an Art Form
April was National Poetry Month. How did you celebrate? That’s what I thought.
The fact that there is a “National Something Month” in the first place means that something is endangered or on the cusp of being totally forgotten. Which is exactly the case with poetry.
Which is sad. If you have never tasted the delights of poetry—language distilled into its purest, most powerful form—you’re missing out.
But if you can’t count yourself among the consumers of poems, you’re far from alone. Poetry used to be loved and recited by all people of all classes—at weddings, at funerals, on tombstones, on bathroom walls, at dedications, before battle, after battle, at receptions, meetings, festivities, feasts, orgies, soirees, dinners, banquets, blow-outs. It was just another accepted form of human expression.
But now, for some reason, poetry almost exclusively belongs to the English Department of your local university. It has become academic, specialized, pretentious. Instead of addressing the general public, poets now almost exclusively write their poems for other poets or poetry critics.
Which is a shame. Poetry has delights that prose just can’t provide. And it’s just plain crazy that most young people—or old people, for that matter—roll their eyes when they hear the very word poetry.
Which is not to say that academia’s to blame for your not reading poetry. As much as we like to rail against negative trends in society, we shouldn’t forget that we are part of the very thing we’re railing against.
And perhaps I’m exaggerating when I say poetry is dead or dying or at least very ill. Our current idea of poetry is dying, true, due to overspecialization and lack of public appeal. But poetry as it began with Homer:
Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber’d, heavenly goddess, sing!
That wrath which hurl’d to Pluto’s gloomy reign
The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain;
Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.
And as it continues in popular music with Bob Dylan:
You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last
But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast
Yonder stands your orphan with his gun
Crying like a fire in the sun
Look out the saints are comin’ through
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue
…has remained an unbroken circle.Recommended reading: 1. The Iliad, translated by Alexander Pope. 2. Shakespeare’s Sonnets. 3. Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 4. Just about anything by Emily Dickinson. 5. This gem by Basho. 6. The lyrics of Bob Dylan.