As an English student it is easy to forget that most people don’t actually read poetry anymore, the only reason everyone in my seminar does is because its on the reading list. I’m in an academic bubble, one not at all indicative of the level of engagement with poetry in our culture today. Of course, people do read poetry still, they even buy it on occasion – but by and large, it is a dying art form (or at least forgotten). Indeed, in the USA, between 1992-2012 there was a 10.3% decline in readership of poetry despite it being arguably more accessible with the internet (sites such as the Poetry Foundation offering a huge variety of poetry). In fact, according to the same study, Jazz is more popular than poetry in America at the moment. But more convincing than statistics (but far more subjective I’ll admit) is the reaction of people when you tell them you read and write poetry. Raised eyebrows (to show that their eyes are there) and an exaggerated backwards tilt of the head (to prove the chin is present) accompanied by ‘ohhh how wonderful’ or an empty ‘that’s really cool’, its amazing how words and body language simply don’t align. There is a definite stigma attached to poetry in the 21st century (in my generation at least), whether it is totally negative is unclear, however it is certainly present and makes it far harder to want to write. I can’t quite work out what this stigma is, maybe poetry is viewed as a useless pursuit or something ‘for girls’ – definitely not for a guy that’s for sure. Both statistics and perceptions match though; poetry is something of the past and it doesn’t seem like it will make a huge comeback – there is little appetite, that much seems clear.
But it is baffling as to why we’ve left poetry behind and forsaken the opportunity for expression which the art form holds. Poetry isn’t just about flowers and pretty things, or about love and sunshine. It isn’t just highly convoluted and old language, impossible to decipher, and it isn’t all old and irrelevant. Shakespeare has probably given poetry a bad name, or at least a skewed impression of what poetry is. That’s not to criticise the man (get back in your box Shakespeare fans), but most people do encounter Shakespearian verse at school. And even if you love him, you have to admit his work isn’t the most accessible or universal. So, the engagement with poetry often ends at school, with people thinking that Shakespeare represents what poetry is. Perhaps the government have a responsibility to design curriculums to be more engaging and diverse – of course covering the canon of literature, but not limiting it to that. Poetry isn’t dusty old books which deal only with Greek and Roman mythology, it is intensely relevant and even poems written hundreds of years ago can connect with readers today. Take ‘In Memoriam’, written in 1850 by Tennyson, it is still almost impossible not to relate to his grief and suffering. Poetry captures an essence and a common condition within every person. It comes from us, so naturally it speaks to us. It gives an amazing insight into people – we all share common emotion and feeling regardless of belief, gender, age, sexuality, race or anything else you can think of. Poetry is a uniting art.
My dad often asks me (playing the devil’s advocate) what the point of poetry is, or art, or sport, or anything like that. He is right to a certain extent – there is no ‘point’, it doesn’t ‘do’ anything visible like a car does, or a mechanised factory. But they all fulfil a human need for pleasure and entertainment. And I think poetry transcends this basic need. If it does nothing else, it evokes an emotive response or simply an emotion from the reader. Everyone feels something when they read poetry. Whether it be happiness or sadness, cynicism or optimism, pain or relief. It doesn’t really matter what (on a large scale) because poetry’s aim is to garner an emotional sensation and response. If it does that, then the poet has made a connection with another person, and this on a huge scale is really important. To cause someone to feel something through art is the ‘point’ of art, to make someone’s day more than just the usual routine of encounters, to create emotion through words. That should be something everyone wants to engage with surely? On a perhaps less universal note, if people read and enjoy poetry they are more likely to want to write it. If reading stimulates writing, then people need to read more poetry. Poetry isn’t just art, its part of social history. Each poem written in some way engages with the present situation of a person, even if not explicitly. Historical readings of literature have huge amounts to offer us; they help us see how people used to view the world, themselves, their future, and their own past. Poetry is small scale history (sometimes even large scale). Poems can be a window into a life; a person’s intimate interior – records and statistics cannot offer us this insight. If we lose poetry as a literary genre then we starve ourselves in the future of huge parts of history.
Poetry also offers a really interesting study on the limits of language to express. Everyone has probably said ‘ahh I just don’t know how to put it into words’, well poetry has this problem at its heart. If we could just say what we feel in straight language we’d only have prose. But the rhythm, metre, syntax, and tone of poetry all help the language along with ‘finding’ the emotion which the poet feels. This is why music is amazing – the lyrics and the music complement one another to cause the listener to feel more intensely what the musician is trying to express. Poetry does this too, just in a far more subtle way. Words are often secondary in poetry, particularly in more modern poetry, where rarely do the words mean what they say. Poetry exposes how words cannot ever capture more than a fleeting essence of what they try to express – but this only magnifies the effect. There is a common understanding that the most inexpressible emotions are often the most powerful – a poem’s imperfection is completely relatable with everyday communication, exactly why it is so powerful.
I understand that it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but neither are certain genres of music or art. I think that poetry has been grossly misrepresented in modern culture, and if there was wider engagement with the genre then there would be greater understanding of what it can represent. There will be a poem you read one day which simply resonates with everything inside of you, then you’ll instantly understand why poetry should be mainstream again.