FORREST ROBINETTE ’16
This past week, in one of my classes, we had a discussion about how poetry is not a mainstream art form in today’s world. We read novels, we see the occasional play, we watch many movies, and we even see paintings every once in a while, but the average American rarely has any contact with poetry outside of academia.
There are still many distinguished and accomplished poets who are writing today, but the population at large does not know them or come into the contact with their work. Brilliant poets today are known as widely as say brilliant directors. We’re familiar with the giants of filmmaking such as Scorsese or Spielberg, who are continuing to create work as we speak, but I doubt many Americans could name two contemporary poets of similar importance to their art form.
The absence of poetry in the mainstream is particularly interesting because it is one of the oldest art forms in the world and for thousands of years it dominated the culture of many societies. From Homer to Dante and Chaucer to Tennyson, people came into contact with poetry very often and it had a place in their lives. A central reason for this is because for the vast majority of human existence, we have not lived in a print culture.
The novel for example could never be mainstream in an ancient or medieval society because the large majority of the population was illiterate. Poetry, however, was meant to be spoken and not to be read. Many ancient Greeks would not have been sufficiently educated to read the Iliad or Odyssey and so they would instead listen to it be delivered by a performer of poetry. Most ancient societies had an oral tradition, a culture spread verbally from one generation to the next rather than by books.
In today’s world, we all have the luxury of literacy and therefore there is no need to preserve culture orally because we can document, write down, and record any bit of culture. For many years, poetry was meant to be spoken aloud and today anything written is almost always read to oneself. As our culture shifted from the spoken word to the written word, poetry lost some of its power in society.
My poetry teachers today encourage me to read the poems out loud and I feel absolutely silly doing this sometimes, but whether you read it to yourself or actually say the words has a significant impact on how you experience the poem. Poetry with significant rhyme or meter loses a terrible amount of its power when it is not spoken. We feel strange reading anything aloud unless we are reading for a crowd or some kind of listener. Reading is expected nowadays to be a completely silent act. I never go to read my Chaucer homework in the library because I’m sure the silent readers (everyone but me) would get annoyed with me (and rightly so) for disturbing their quiet and focus. With the departure of an oral literary culture, people are less likely to engage with poetry in the same way that they might engage with a novel or a film.
The instructor of my poetry class, Professor Rosen, remarked that contemporary poets are almost entirely associated with some kind of academic institution. He went on to say that poets can’t really make a living today as a poet such as Tennyson could make a living back in his day. Many popular poets of Tennyson’s time died rich men because poetry was so much more popular. Today, if I told my peers that I am going to begin a career as a poet, I imagine they would give me a piteous look and say that I should learn some good dumpster diving techniques. I also think that there is a decline in respect for artists in American society that further diminishes the popularity of a kind of niche art form such as contemporary poetry. There’s a strong belief in practicality and hard work and the artistic life is not always in accordance with that belief. In ancient Greece and Rome to some extent, poets were seen as creators and assumed almost divine status as a result of that.
Today, I think we still revere many great artists and acknowledge their hard work and brilliance, but I believe that when many artists begin their careers in today’s world, they encounter a great deal of skepticism from their peers for not being more practical. I’m not looking to argue whether our strong belief in practicality is good or not, but I will argue that it is prevalent and influences our culture and art.
I was discussing contemporary poetry with one of my peers and he called it a dying art form. I had a small crisis when he used the word “dying” because I enjoy poetry and would like it to continue. He made the point that poetry has become like a captive endangered animal. Those who care deeply about it preserve its beauty, but it has lost its ability to thrive in the world at large. I can’t say that I agree with him and I hope his assessment isn’t correct, but I can’t deny the fact that I have only really encountered poetry within the confines of academia.
I studied Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats, and other greats in high school and now here at Trinity, but I don’t seek out poems that were written in the last five or even ten years. However, I seek out novels that were written recently all the time. Our cultural preferences have shifted and they have moved away from poetry. Any of us would get a group of friends together and go see the latest Peter Jackson film, but I doubt many of us would do the same to hear a poet do a reading of his work. I don’t see this as inherently good or bad. For those that love poetry, there is a massive well of existing poetry and there are brilliant contemporary poets who are writing new poetry as we speak, even if the mainstream doesn’t know about them.
Perhaps one day poetry will experience a resurgence and once again assume a significant role in the average person’s everyday life or maybe it will continue to be experienced primarily through academia. As long as individuals are being exposed to good art, art that speaks to them, the specific form is not a big deal.
I am able to reconcile my friend’s endangered animal comparison because as of this moment, I have not even scratched the surface of all the amazing poetry that has been written and is still being written. I also realize that the gap left by the decreased prevalence of poetry has been filled by other forms of art. There may not be as many poets out there today as there were three hundred or two thousand years ago, but there are countless brilliant novelists, filmmakers, playwrights, and painters who are creating beautiful and original work. Art is an eternally evolving thing and it may be that some art forms are destined to fade away or transform into a different art form.
Poetry doesn’t just live on in today’s traditional poets, but also in spoken word and rap artists. Maybe we don’t all gather around and listen to an oral rendition of the Aeneid, but we do expose ourselves poetic art in other ways. Art must always be relevant to the times to be effective and poetry has evolved and changed throughout its history and it will continue to evolve and change, as will all art forms.