The State of Poetry Now?

Are poets today largely talking to themselves?

Are many of them happy to do so, locked away in academia or whatever other cloister?

Are the ones who want a wider public, and who want to take on larger subjects, just curating their shelf of books for future generations to find?

I heard somewhere that after September 11, Bruce Springsteen was seen on the street and told, “We need you now.”

In a completely other situation, when I lived in California I remember someone at my job quitting all of a sudden and moving across the country. To explain her decision and the sense of turning a page, she quoted Avril Lavigne on Facebook.

While it’s silly to mention Springsteen and Lavigne in the same sentence, it still struck me that, in general, nowadays when people want to explain themselves or sum up personal or national struggles, they don’t turn to actual poetry anymore. While I’m among those who didn’t mind Bob Dylan winning the Nobel last year, and while I admire Bruce Springsteen, I still wouldn’t call what they do “poetry.” It clearly moves people, and clearly moves me, but not in the same way that Whitman or Wordsworth do. (A wider distinction between poetry and song developed some time ago, though they may intersect again.)

It strikes me that many of the even older forbears I lean on, from the Old Testament poets to Homer or the authors of the Poetic Edda, all filled a need for poetry that Western culture no longer demands. When their contemporaries wanted what we now consider their religion or culture or history told back to them, they depended upon poets to do it. For many today, nonfiction scholarship fills this role; for popular culture, it’s the movies, or a documentary.

The example of the past also gives me this idea: from Beowulf to Chaucer to Shakespeare, even the most complicated poetry was once immensely more comprehensible to everyday audiences than they are now. The late Seamus Heaney was a generally “accessible” poet, and even though he gave many readings, it’s doubtful that people not familiar with Irish poetry or history would volunteer to listen to him, or comprehend much if they did. Add to this the slew of inaccessible and willfully unreadable poetry being produced today (or the other end, the completely transparent bad blog or slam poetry, which are little more than confessional prose with line breaks), and it’s obvious that poetry has both given up much of its performative heritage, and that the wider public is okay with this. The best poetry today, not to mention that of the past, seems to be best experienced alone and in silence.

While it would be easy to blame the MFA industry for this, I’m pretty sure poetry’s waning influence and public usefulness predates the insularity of writing programs and the nepotism they spawn.

And so, what use poetry? Regardless, writing it will remain a life-sustaining impulse that I at least can’t abandon. At most this really is just a diversion and place-holder in between writing and reading more poetry; but it’s still interesting to think about how any art-form—architecture, painting, theater, music, poetry—waxes and wanes in the public interest, or for entire generations goes through a period of effulgence or decline. I hate to think my own work is living in a time of decline, but I’m not sure what other conclusion there is.

A lot of generalizations and provocations here, I know. I’d be interested in what anybody else out there thinks.



18 replies »

  1. i take my cue from Eliot’s introduction to Kipling’s verse that he compiled, in which he explains that Kipling is not a poet because his poet is too lyrical, but that this isn’t a put down. i see no reason to seperate poetry & song writing & for each to be there own thing with their own strengths.
    On poetry’s waning influence I’d say other mediums have drowned it out pretty much. But it’d be incorrect to say it has no influence, it still has an air of mystery that means it is quoted in films like Interstellar & Bond. I think the cliche of the dreamy poet is a detriment as it gives us either bad poetry or ignorance of it.

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  2. I think songs can express our feelings, in the same words that we use to describe them. Poetry, on the other hand, can express those profound feelings we, ourselves, do not have words for.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nobody read Homer or the Eddas, though, did they? Perhaps the popularity of actually *reading* poetry was just a passing fad in historical terms, from the late 17th-c.(?) until the 1920s/30s(?).

    As for listening to poetry, it has just taken different forms. Dylan et al. may not be good poets in conventional terms, but they use words with rhythm, rhyme, etc. to tell stories or reveal states of mind so at a basic level they are poets.

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  4. I have always struggled with poetry, in part because it is difficult to allow the meditative space necessary to appreciate it. Time is a precious commodity in our busy world. The ‘mindfulness’ movement is an attempt to recreate moments where we can simply focus on the now. In today’s world poetry is waiting patiently for quiet time to become a priority.

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  5. I think it was Thoreau that believed access to education would save the world. Just give everyone the key to a library, and they’re lives would improve. His logic seems pretty foolish now.

    Most people would prefer to upload photos to Instagram and do status updates on Facebook. Poetry only serves as a medium to receive more likes and gain a small lead in the adult popularity contest.


  6. There are places in the world where poetry is still rather vibrant: When I was in Iceland a few years ago, it seemed like every second person was a poet, and I saw living oral-formulaic poetry in the Balkans a decade ago. Poetry is in a bad way in the U.S. currently, but that doesn’t bug me. For one thing, it excludes people who gravitate toward things just because their popular; it’s useful to know who’s really and truly interested. Whether poetry makes a comeback here in a decade or in a thousand years, I figure my job, and the job of those of us who care about tradition and form, is to keep a few small fires burning for the future. When I get the occasional email or comment from someone who writes, delightedly, that they didn’t know anyone wrote poetry in recognizable forms anymore, then I feel I’ve done something useful for the art.


  7. Lately I find myself turning to some of my favorite poets more and more lately. Elizabeth Bishop, Jane Kenyon, Naomi Shihab Nye, Frederico Garcia Lorca, Derek Walcott and Wendell Berry. These are the folks that keep me sane.

    If you haven’t seen “Reuben Reuben”, I highly recommend it.

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  8. Pingback: Arte y Política
  9. Poets are largely reading and writing for each other these but whenever my poetry group sets up a table at a street fair and writes poetry “on demand” we regularly have “normals” lining up to pay for one of their very own. The highest praise I’ve gotten as a poet was when someone recognized me from a previous event and told me that my poem was still magnetted to their refrigerator. We just need to inconvenience more innocent bystanders to remind them of what they’ve lost.

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  10. I believe this phenomenon is akin to what happened to music after MTV launched. Because of the new mediums created by watching live action pictures (television), the vast majority no longer wish to indulge their own imagination and instead choose to have the artist’s imagination shown clear as day.

    While I myself am appreciative of this medium (television) for several reasons, I still open a book on a daily basis, even if it’s just fiction or non-fiction.

    The sad state of affairs is that the general populace worldwide is trending towards shorter attention spans. This all leads back to television with its commercials and 30 minute episodes. No one has the time, patience, or wont to open a book and enjoy the musings of abstract ideas and fantasies.

    Why would they? When much cooler toys like the iPad or smart watch or mainstream television programming and even mainstream music all points to flashy pomp.

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  11. In regional languages of india, poetry still plays an important role and is appreciated. In Hindi for example, two liners called “shayiri” is still in vogue even among the upper-middle class that tends to otherwise emulate the West in most respects.

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  12. Two unrelated observations:

    1. Garcia Lorca believed that, if he wanted to reach out to people with his poetry, he had to be a playwright. We could argue in favor of popular music to fulfill that same role today.

    2. I was talking to a published poet a week ago. She is tied up to academia in a way that is repulsive to her, having been flattered by a couple of professors that soon became her courtiers and sole interpreters. They milk her work through indexed papers and their good word feeds her with rather meagre state funds to print her books. Once they had the effrontery of telling her how her most recent poems ‘didn’t fit in’ with the rest of her work, and offered to tailor her career.
    ‘I was very poor then, I am still poor, I love my craft, and I’m getting old. I am their hostage.’

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  13. Poetry is changing it’s form as technology grows. The essence is still there but projected in other ways , in my opinion not as tasteful as traditional poetry. Poetry is speaking of the heart for what one believes in and values. This new generation values different things than those of the past and the poetry /message and its form change with it. Quick and free spirited.

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