The Failure of Interest In Poetry In Our Time

Poetry - a literary genre - cannot be said to fail, whether it be conservative (in places) or innovative. I have often wondered how intelligent poets, who espouse an interest in science and medicine, could understand science to pertain to the whole of the world (indeed, to all existence) with its laws, but still accept that "Poetry" could be one thing in, say, America, and another in Scotland, or India. Languages separate poems, even poets, but poetry is an indivisible and complex whole, a concept that contains many different possible options, perspectives, and approaches. Otherwise, how to explain Ashbery and Heaney - both significant figures - writing poems of very different kinds, and orders? Too often, criticism has sought to position various "poetics" or "poetries" at odds (official verse culture, say, or the avant-garde) - when a larger, and more positive, similarity accrued, across the globe, with relation to poetry. So, poetry has not failed in our time.

But there has been a massive falling off of interest in poetry, on the part of everyone - that is, the public at large, the average reader, even the intelligent, informed student, and so on. To deny this is impossible, I think, if one quickly reflects on what actual interest looks like. A "star" of film or music is followed by dozens of photographers, and is known to many, if not all; their products sell in the millions of units, enriching them in the process. Their work is widely enjoyed, discussed, owned, and reviewed.

This is not an ideal, but it is a definition of interest. I am avoiding the word "popularity" for any number of reasons - one of which is that mass interest even attaches to the despised, in some instances. What is sure is that no poet - not one - currently writing or alive - has raised that interest. Too often, schools of thought or taste are blamed for this downfall of recognition. Or even, teaching.

But no one is taught to love a screen star, or a song. Desire brings people freely to other artifacts of our world culture. It is true, marketing is cunningly employed to assist this process - but then again, books are also marketed - and the result is, storytellers, like Ken Follett or Pullman - become loved, or at least famous.

No, the fact is, poetry is no longer of any interest to most people. None.

I read somewhere that Daljit Nagra's amazing debut collection, from Faber, this year sold 35,000 copies. In poetry terms, that is impressive. In world terms, that is nothing.

There have never been such engaging, accessible poets (Billy Collins, Wendy Cope, Derek Mahon, Margaret Atwood) or such difficult ones (Prynne, Bernstein, Muldoon, Kinsella). Neither set outwits or erases the other - both work to enjoy, explore, and engage with, language - in terms of form and content. 21st century English-language poetry is as rich as at the time of Kipling, Yeats and Hardy.

So, the genre of poetry cannot have failed. It is no failure on the part of the poets, maybe not even their publishers and promoters.

So, what is the cause of the major lack of interest in poems?

I am afraid the answer is, it is our humanity that has failed. It is not the poems that have got smaller, but the audience - in more ways than one. Readers (and by extension I mean Western society) no longer seeks a quest, or a journey, that may be truly transformative, in art. The major effect of art was always transformation - metamorphosis. It might render one immortal, or blind, or wise. Today's readers seek comfort, conformity, and assurance. If they believe in God, they do not want to truly shaken to the core of their faith. If they are determined atheists, they do not want to thoroughly consider the possible riches that await a believer. Story is desired. Story, and escape.

Since the advertising-media complex sells Escape as its principle commodity, it cannot interest its readers in Poetry. Poetry intensifies within us precisely those parts of being which resist the world that can be bought and sold. Poetry reminds us of language as something other than that can be manipulated to deceive. Poetry - neither mere magic, or craft - is the art and science of language utterly speaking out all possible engagements with the world. its astounding diversity topples preconceptions, dogmas, and hierarchies. The greatest poem is always yet to be written.

Poetry, therefore, remains, to me, exactly exciting, in the deepest sense. But is an excitement predicated on a strong willingness to recognise the need for change - even radical change. Poetry may require a non-believer to love a god, or a god to love a man.

The fact that poetry does not interest most people suggests most people are no longer interesting. Their absorption in extremely violent parallel worlds, games, and so on, masks a declining ability to empathise with that was once called the human condition. I fear, quite seriously, that we are everyday rendered less human. Welcome to the inhuman condition of the new age.

Comments

Paul said…
Excellent post Todd. I couldn't agree more. What, then, for poets to do? What is there to do but keep writing? For the future, perhaps, as well as for the present. Perhaps that is what marks poetry out.

it puts me in mind of Robinson Jeffers:

If God has been good enough to give you a poet
Then listen to him. But for God’s sake let him alone until he is dead;
no prizes, no ceremony,
They kill the man. A poet is one who listens
To nature and his own heart; and if the noise of the world grows up
around him, and if he is tough enough,
He can shake off his enemies, but not his friends.
That is what withered Wordsworth and muffled Tennyson, and would have
killed Keats; that is what makes
Hemingway play the fool and Faulkner forget his art.
Yes, we are less and less "human", I think Patti Smith denounced this in a song in her debut album "Horses" in 1975.
I simply think it's better not to underline this. It's the same I would say to our slashed present goverment in Italy, while keeping to hurt ourselves?
Let's enjoy "Rapture" by C.A. Duffy in the meantime.
And R.S.Thomas's much sterner stuff.
WE can keep reading at least.
The best way to react and denounce.
Davide
Aerin said…
I couldn't agree more. I attended a literature forum in June, and one of the panelists told us (quite seriously) to "never attempt to write poetry for a living; the only sure thing to come of it is that you'll starve". I'm still a student, and whenever I bring my poetry to school the response I get from classmates is that it's probably only because of my IQ that I can understand "that stuff". So my conclusion is that people are less and less interested in what takes them out of their comfort zone. Books like Harry Potter and Northern Lights are popular because they don't exactly challenge us to think and are, most importantly, easy to digest. (Yes, I read them, I know). "Reading for pleasure" is now somewhat defined as "reading without processing", at least from what I can see in my own age group. Poetry is slightly more complex than that, and so many people don't even attempt to understand it. It's automatically written off as something beyond the capabilities of so-called "normal" people for reasons that I can't quite fathom. That attitude puts most people off even trying - if we could somehow get rid of that and people started seriously looking at poetry, they might find themselves pleasantly surprised.
Freemanwalking said…
Todd - I have always envisioned myself a poet and have renewed interest in writing poetry once again now that I've resigned myself to the fact that nobody can make a living at it.
It seems that only poets read poetry anymore (except for "inspirational" greeting cards which everybody reads and are what most people consider poetry these days).
I've been reading Henry Miller and he has similar ideas about dying art forms written 65 years ago.

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