In my favourite bookstore I was recently recommended two novels by Ben Lerner, a fairly young yet acclaimed novelist, and, to my surprise, poet. Both the protagonists of his novels were also poets; young men positively gaunt with the prospect that they had, somehow, managed to become poets and writers despite being positive they had no idea what that entailed. The novels contained short yet powerful nuggets of poetry intermingling with prose. It was my first interaction with poetry outside of the Beat Generation that, in my memory, I ever felt any sort of contemporary relevance with. The poems conjured a new world which still felt inherently truthful.
These novels set me to wonder, where did poetry go?
It turns out that the only thing more cliché than writing a terrible poem is to write about the declining state of “modern poetry”. In my research I blundered almost immediately into a 1991 essay by Dana Gioia, ‘Can Poetry Matter?’ that mourns the loss of poetry relevant to the general public. This article led me to more writing on the subject; ‘Is Verse a Dying Technique?” by Edmund Wilson, published in 1934, and ‘Who Killed Poetry?’ by Joseph Epstein in 1988.
Plato argued in favour of banning poets from the Ancient Athens on the grounds that poets possessed no knowledge of truth. In 2013 Harper’s Magazine published Mark Edmundson’s critique, “Poetry Slam Or, The decline of American verse,” where he accused modern American poets of being “too hermetic even to overhear with anything like comprehension”.
So, what have poets done, or not done, to encourage such a wholesale attack the length and breadth of society? I actually happen, fortuitously, to be good friends with a man known for scribbling down the occasional poem. I invited Lewis, my friend, English teacher and part time poet, over to chat.
How, I asked, was our generation doing with the whole poetry shtick? In summary, he replied, we weren’t. “Our generation generally doesn’t really interact with poetry at all, unless you consider things like hip hop or the one Shakespeare play they read in high school.”
But, I countered, this may not be entirely our own fault. It may be, as our generation is overly fond of pointing out, the fault of those that came before us. Maybe the previous generation just wrote terrible poetry?
“Look, maybe poetry is crap and maybe poetry has nothing to offer. Maybe a lot of people are well within their rights to disregard it, but I don’t think it’s fair to make that assumption, because the majority of people these days are not initiated into how to do poetry.”
Perhaps one of the reasons that it is so easy to dismiss poetry is that it is hard. It is not something that comes naturally, as does reading a story, or listening to a song. It takes time, and studiousness, to reach any level of proper understanding. I had not gripped just how difficult poetry was, I think, until my poet friend said to me:
It is hard to define, to read, and most of all, immensely difficult to write.
“To write great poems takes a lifetime, you either need to be possessed by something that may be defined as genius or you need to develop that craft for years and years and years” he ventured. “Just because you can speak english and understand other people speaking english doesn’t mean you can understand poetry, doesn’t mean you can write poetry.”
Creative writing is currently being axed from the VCE curriculum, so it doesn’t look like things are going to improve in terms of giving poetry a wider audience in the future. But could poetry be made relevant again? Could the current protest movements springing up around the world have a use for this art form that has been used to challenge political ideas for the last century?
“You look at poets like Milton, or Gill Scott Herron, these artists were all very relevant in their time… they were also very politically motivated people and that relevance that their art had to the world at large would have impacted upon their success. Whether or not that could really be achieved in this day and age is tricky, because …. you need something new, and something that might be considered abstract. It would be tricky for poets to become relevant today in such a way, because in order to say something loud and proud you would have to forgo the abstract quality that the academy currently demands… It has gone to the abstract, it has gone to the esoteric.”
But is it not more important to write poems that will mean something to someone, that are capable of translating human emotions and desires, rather than merely pursuing academic approval?
“As a poet, I have never made any apologies that my poems are about things,” he laughs. “And they’re not often terrible subtle… But I do feel that because of that, I do cop criticism from the academy.”
It all reminds me so much of wandering around a modern art exhibition, slightly befuddled, wondering when exactly the undoubtedly profound meaning of art was going to reveal itself to me? Was it all worth it? And for that matter was it even really art?
Ben Lerner, the poet responsible for my piquing my interest in this whole mess, wrote an article for The Guardian where he suggested a possible answer;
When we worry about the marginality of poetry, we are worrying also about the marginality of creativity in lives – ordered, as they are, by economic forces.
So perhaps when we worry about poetry, we are worrying about creativity and art as a whole. In an era of conservative governments slashing liberal arts funding, insidious marketing schemes made to look like genuine creativity, a world in which everybody seems to be shouting and few seem to be listening, why should we not be worried about the state of real, genuine, human creativity?
To help resolve my unending questions, I went and bothered Dr. Peter Groves, a senior lecturer in poetry and literature at Monash. When I asked if he knew where poetry had gone, he responded: It is happening in a corner somewhere. It’s not really visible.’
And does this make you fear that poetry will disappear? I asked.
‘I don’t think it’s going to, it’s just going to become a weird little minority interest. Which is strange because if you go back in time, it was the only game in town. Poetry was the only medium for anything.’
So why are people always so worried about the state of poetry?
“People like to worry about things… Poetry isn’t popular, it’s a simple as that. To make poetry popular again, it’s about making people want it. And how do you do that?
The discussion shifted to the problem with the abstract demands of the poetry elite (‘it’s sterile, and bound for nowhere…’). When I mentioned my poet friend’s statement about receiving criticism for his poems being about genuine things, Groves laughed and responded;
“It’s utterly insane. The whole history of human poetry… it’s about stuff. It’s a weird little cul-de-sac we’ve gotten ourselves into. There’s nowhere to go from here, like paintings in five shades of black.’
‘Were you here for our previous Vice Chancellor? Vile little man. Well he must have friends in publishing become Melbourne University published some things of his called ‘poems’, and these were absurd. It had no content, no form, they were kind of brain farts like tweets from Donald Trump.’
I came away from the interview feeling slightly better about the chances of poetry (and unable to get the imagery of a Trump brain fart out of my head). Peter had such a happy and joyous view of language and poetry that it was difficult not to feel a glimmer of hope;
Language is such an intimate possession… Children love to play with language. Some people grow up and they kind of lose that, but most people don’t. Poetry is about the play principle. Poetry as an art is about playing with language. There are deep persistent roots there that poetry appeals to…Poetry as a political force is incredibly powerful, and maybe that is how it will plug into consciousness. Maybe Trump could be good for poetry.
So in the end, I don’t know. I still don’t know where poetry is, or even what exactly it is. Even in it’s own little corner, I think it poetry will prove to be resilient—at least I hope it will be. My own thoughts are apparently of little comfort here, so I found some from a much wiser soul for you instead;
“Thoughts” (from Pooh Bear’s House) – A.A.Milne.
I lay on my chest
And I thought it best
To pretend I was having a evening rest;
I lay on my tum
And I tried to hum
But nothing particular seemed to come
My face was flat
On the floor, and that
Is all very well for an acrobat;
But it doesn’t seem fair
To a Friendly Bear
To stiffen him out with a backet-chair.
And sort of squoze
Which grows and grows
Is not too nice for his poor old nose,
And sort of squch
Is much too much
For his neck and his mouth and his
ears and such.