Saturday, 14 July 2012

Where have all the poets gone?

This week, Carol Anne Duffy won the PEN/Pinter prize for poetry.  Duffy, as Poet Laureate, is probably the most famous poet operating in Britain at the moment (Seamus Heaney having of course moved to Ireland), and has an ever-increasing body of critically acclaimed poetry.  But how many people could name a single one of her poems?

This obviously isn’t limited to Duffy.  Last week we discussed the anonymity of London’s Poetry Parnassus, and indeed of Literature in general.  However, while novels are less discussed than footballers, they are still almost infinitely more successful than poems.  JK Rowling will sell millions of copies of The Casual Vacancy this autumn; Duffy, awards and all, will struggle to shift a fraction of that.

It’s easy to forget it hasn’t always been this way.  Throughout history the vast majority of authors have used poetry, from The Odyssey and Beowulf to Shakespeare and Milton.  Even when novels rose to prominence in the eighteenth century the most celebrated writers were poets: Pope (the first professional writer), Wordsworth, Byron and the like.  Only within the last fifty years has the decline of poetry been cemented – nowadays it is barely even seen as critically significant, except within an increasingly limited community.

Now there are many theories as to why this is the case.  Many would simply profess poetry to be outdated – in researching this article I attempted to ask Google ‘why is poetry so undervalued’; I was interrupted midway through with the suggestion ‘why is poetry so boring’.  A more analytical mind might put this down to the relative complexity of poetry – prose more naturally mirrors the way we describe the world around us, and few of us now have time to decipher the coded meanings of inconsistencies in iambic pentameter.

As an explanation, though, it doesn’t pull much weight.  To start with, there’s no reason at all why poetry must be complicated.  The reason why oral poets used meter and rhyme was to make their creations easier to recall and recite, while Alexander Pope claimed he didn’t use rhyme to show off, but because he doubted it was possible to write well without its structure.

Others might claim that poetry isn’t truly declining, but that poetic energy has been redirected into hip-hop – few people might listen to Carol Ann Duffy, but Jay-Z has no problem communicating to millions.  This is true to an extent, as we touched on last week, but isn’t truly satisfying – those praised for their lyrics tend either to be openly political or insightfully mundane, but very rarely transcendently poetic.  Within a popular music setting these performers are more praised for their voices and tunes than their words.  Rappers and singers might well be artists, but not truly poets.

The decline of poetry thus raises more questions than answers.  Is this a blip or a terminal illness?  Is poetry dying or changing?  Does anyone still care anyway?

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1 comment:

  1. I would agree that poetry itself is not that pop culturally significant, but I think a lot of the functions that used to be filled by the literary poet are now being fulfilled by the pop lyricist. Queen Victoria, for example, famously turned to Tennyson's 'In Memoriam' to help cope with the death of Albert; I turn to Bob Dylan's 'Don't Think Twice It's Alright' for consolation.

    I'm not sure that many poetic functions are really being fulfilled by the biggest names in hip-hop at the moment. A lot of the lyrics on Kanye & Jay-Z's album, for example, are not massively compelling (although I do like the line 'coke on her black skin like a zebra / I call that jungle fever'). In the category just below the super-mainstream, however, I think there's an excess of lyrical talent that is still getting a large audience. This, perhaps: