Feature Articles

WHY WRITE OR READ POETRY? by Michael Smith

(Poetry Ireland News, January/February 2006)

Is there anything new that can be written on this hoary old subject? I honestly don’t know, but one thing is certain: more and more people are writing what they consider poetry to be, and fewer and fewer people are bothering to read it. The number of people who read poetry after they’ve encountered it in the educational system, to judge by poetry book and magazine sales, and by attendances at poetry readings, seems to be ever diminishing. Tennyson was probably the last, maybe even the first, of best-seller poets. Kipling, of course, sold fairly well in his time, as did Auden and as do a very few others in our own time: not, however, on the scale of Tennyson. Before Tennyson, there were the Romantics, and of these I suppose Byron sold well, as did Wordsworth. Selections of Emily Dickinson’s poems sell well. The American Beats of the 60s reached out to bigger audiences than many poets before them and since. In the case of a poet such as T.S. Eliot, it is hard to know whether the sale of his poetry has more to do with educational prescription or poetry-loving demand. Robert Frost sells well. Going back further than any of these names, to the Metaphysicals, for instance, poetry was read by the few (Donne’s poems circulated in his own lifetime mostly in manuscript form), and there seems to have been no great urge on the part of these poets to seek a wider readership. How popular was Homer in his own lifetime? Or Virgil? Or Dante? Shakespeare’s poems were for the few. My list of names, of course, is not comprehensive; but I am not here writing an academic article.

Many decades ago, the solid and often stolid Edmund Wilson, in an essay in his The Triple Thinkers, concluded that the function of verse was being absorbed by prose (Flaubert and Joyce are especially pointed to as absorbing it to its enrichment), and, sharing Ezra Pound’s judgment, that poetry was losing, to its detriment, its roots in music (always more popular than poetry, and a ‘carrier’ of poetry). In his essay, Wilson significantly uses the word ‘verse’ rather than ‘poetry’, and has in mind very much the traditional techniques of verse: regular metrics and prosody. One gets the impression that Wilson perceived the widespread abandonment of traditional versification resulting from the advent of ‘free verse’ as contributing to the loss of distinction between verse and prose and a consequent rise in the popularity of prose at the expense of verse. His argument is more complicated than this brief summary, and he concludes his essay with the advice that ‘To be too much attached to the traditional tools may be sometimes to ignore the new masters.'

Are the lyrics of modern pop songs to be given the same respect as the lyrics of Wordsworth and Coleridge, or, more relevantly, the ‘musical’ lyrics of the medieval and Renaissance court poets, or the best of folksongs such as the Scottish Twa Corbies? Doubtless the admirers of pop lyrics will answer positively to this question; but is their answer based on ignorance of the vast corpus of poetry of the past and on a sentimental and vague notion deriving from the third-rate romantic poetry that followed in the wake of Tennyson; or is their answer based on a new function of poetry as valid as any that existed in the past, even if that view is not acceptable to many who insist that the lyrics of some pop lyricists, separated from their music, are trite and clichéd and in no way comparable to the ‘literary’ lyrics and folksongs of the past and present? Is the deprecation of the literary value of the lyrics of pop music based on mere literary snobbism which has deprived poetry of any possibility of being popular and marginalised it to the point of extinction? Is it valid to subject the lyrics of pop songs to the same criteria as, say, a lyric by Auden; or should these be considered totally different artifacts, different though equally valid as ‘poetry’?

Some investigation of these questions has already been undertaken and no doubt will continue. As to the question of why anyone writes poetry now in the face of this extreme marginalisation, one may ask if this activity is based on a worthwhile need, for instance the desire to explore reality in a way that no other means, such as the writing of fiction or philosophy, seems adequate, or merely the desire for some measure of ‘fame’, or self-indulgent emotionalism or sentimentality (however well-intentioned)?

We are living in an age that is or aspires to be democratic. In this context, statistics predominates. Almost everything now is reduced to a matter of numbers: the more the better. In terms of market economics and democratic politics, it is easy to see how this makes sense. More votes, more consumer goods for more people, more education and health services for more people, etc., etc. Value is based on quantity, and even quality may become a matter of quantity. Is it any wonder that advertising has the importance it has in our time? Millions of dollars or euro may be spent on advertising before five minutes of a film have been shot. Generally, the most important factor in the application for funding for an arts body or for its clients is that of numbers: the bigger the number of people involved, the more considerable is the application notwithstanding the paradox that the bigger the number the less dependent should the arts body or its clients be on non-market subsidy. There is, however, it seems to me, an alternative to this kind of assessment. An activity may have a value that transcends statistics: there are activities, even in face of the problem of altruism, such as acts of caring or generosity, that seem to me to be intrinsically valuable to human life. The pursuit of knowledge as an enrichment of the human spirit, if I may be allowed to use a problematic phrase, seems to me to be such an activity. If the writing of poetry is viewed as part of that pursuit, then it is, at least arguably, intrinsically valuable. And the battle against its marginalisation should continue.

Michael Smith co-edited César Vallejo’s Trilce and Complete Later Poems 1923-1938, published by Shearsman Books in 2005.

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