Is Poetry Dead?

The Seeds and Fruits of English Poetry, oil on...

The Seeds and Fruits of English Poetry, oil on canvas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let me clarify: it’s not me asking. It’s the Washington Post.

Lord Byron

Is good Lord Byron rolling in his grave even as we speak? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alexandra Petri, one of the paper’s pundits, investigated the assertion in an article last week (which I just discovered now).  And I quote: “Poets are like the Postal Service — a group of people sedulously doing something that we no longer need, under the misapprehension that they are offering us a vital service.” What’s more, the article goes on to quote playwright Gwydion Suilebhan in delivering the dramatic title of this post: “Poetry is dead. What pretends to be poetry now is either New Age blather or vague nonsense or gibberish. It’s zombie poetry.”

By her own estimation, in fact, there is “no longer, really, any formal innovation possible.”  That world-shaking revelations such as “Howl” or “The Waste Land” are no longer possible in a world where high production movies, video games, and other media are able to do everything the poet can do, but better.

Petri, naturally, was using this as a parallel point to journalism, which if any of you have been following the course of in recent years, is in very dire straits itself. If poetry is dead, then what of journalism?

Personally, I think it is exactly like journalism–in the regards that there will be a struggle for a time, a chaotic crumbling of identity whereby everyone is scrambling to rediscover just what it can be. But is it dead? Will it die? Certainly not. The identity will change. The nature of it will change, and find new ground. But I dare say–nay, I dare hope–this old dose of the literary, stalking us from the very dawning of civilization, is so engrained in us that it could never truly, utterly die.

So poets, journalists, I ask you, what do you think? What are your insights to this, and where do you think things are heading?


6 thoughts on “Is Poetry Dead?

  1. Wow. I read his article, and Petri asks repeatedly if his assertions are harsh. Um, yes. I think he is being sarcastic, patronizing, and harsh. Just because someone does not understand or enjoy something does not then render it obsolete. By this reasoning, all forms of art would be in danger. I found the article rather condescending, and I think as long as people are alive, they will find ways to string words together, to find meaning in the ordinary and extraordinary. How we write poetry, how we critique poetry, how we interpret poetry, how poetry is categorized and defined . . . these things might change with time. Of course, I see the humor in overly sincere poets, in strange poets, in crazy poets, and weird poets, but I wouldn’t want to live in a world without the most eccentric. I don’t necessarily enjoy every poem I read or every movie I watch or every painting I look at. I would not then jump to the conclusion that any and/or all should be tossed aside.

    I know I should stop now, but one more thing. He asks if poetry can change anything. I think he means can poetry change anything on a grand scale. I think if a poem affects one person, that’s change enough. (okay, rant officially over, lol)

    • Being a master of the sarcastic art myself, I have to say it definitely goes above mere sarcasm–the professional snarker in me’s eyes about bugged out of his head to read many of Petri’s derogatory statements. But perhaps that was the point? To deliver such potent, bomb-like statements to galvanize others to response. Patronizing? Certainly. Harsh? Assuredly.

      I quite agree with you. She may have been using the topic of poetry to poke at the quandary of journalism’s own uncertain nature right now, but she took a condescending approach to it. Is all poetry created equal, in all people’s eyes? No. Nor has it ever been. Throughout time, new forms have been treated with uncertain eyes, and people have had to struggle to see them become the new norm. I agree that poetry, of the moment, lacks the prominence and power of older days, and certainly seems to be muddled in a lack of “general” direction–but of course it is, because there’s just so many technological and media revolutions happening at once, how can it keep up? Like journalism, and publishing, and all the rest, I have to imagine it’s just a matter of times before the confusion coalesces into something new, something beautiful, and something meaningful.

      Certainly, you are correct: to dismiss all poets now is simply jumping to far too great an extreme.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. If poetry is indeed dead then it will surely rise like vampires and zombies to the forefront of pop culture in waves inventive creativity and mind-numbing commercialism before reclaiming its upper rung on the ladder of high art. So, no, I am not worried about the vital signs of poetry.

    • The world moves in cycles. It has always been so. Stagnation leads to breaking points in the resolve, and when those moments come, the flurry of revolution against that stagnation–the raw fury of creativity that comes in counter to it–is startling. The spark never goes forever, though. Cycles, like I said.

      And in terms of commercialism vs. art–another cycle. There is the originality of the art form, and then it becomes so standard, so accepted, the commercialism consumes it, and what is presented becomes stagnant, in turn leading to the next stage of the previous cycle.

      We’ll hit another breaking point in the years to come, no doubt. What emerges may be nigh unrecognizable from what has been before, but we will surely marvel at the art it embodies.

  3. I find it humorous that the article mentions poems like “Howl” and “Song of Myself”. If someone wrote a poem like that today, it would be trite. Simply because it has already been done and represents a different era. Those poets weren’t sitting there “trying” to write their work to become incredibly significant poems of the day, they just wrote them as part of their whole works. The authors of those poems had nothing to do with the power that those works gained. It was the people around them and the movers and shakers that made a big deal out of them, and rightfully so to recognize only a handful of the many amazing creations of that time.

    It is also important to note that those poems really only gained power after quite some time. Walt Whitman didn’t really get to see how powerful his work became later on. “Howl” was identified by a small group of poets and spread from the east coast to the west coast like wild fire, but it still took a while! There were many other amazing poets at that time too, but the spot light is only so big, and our society can only digest so much at a time. This is one good thing about rediscovering old artists, we can move our spot light to appreciate other poems besides those that academia and media put upon a pedestal for that era. We have to ask, in light of all the Poetry masters like Whitman, Pound, Frost and Ginsberg, how many other great poets were out there but never got recognized?

    Another question too is, how would we identify any existing poems that are significant for our generation? We wait! It’s the generations after us that will pick from the poems, and the novels, and the essays we create today to identify our moment in time. The issue I see in the linked article is that they question why no one has done for our current time, that which only future generations can really accomplish, which is to designate flagship works. The reason why they want to identify these Iconic Works now? To generate Money, Publicity, and a need to point out the best of the best. We all know the problems this creates, especially in art, which are people agreeing on what is good, and what is garbage. Good luck on that one!

    In my opinion, poetry isn’t dead or lost or found. It is just something that some of us do, for many reasons, many of which are selfish (in a good way) and wholly pleasurable. If people gain things from my work and decide that it represents anything but me, then that’s a bonus. You can hardly expect art to change people. Only the individual can give art the power to change them.

    Nice article Chris, 🙂

    • Quite right! The cultural and historical aspects–more valid considerations to make. So many works considered great today were utterly overlooked in their own time; so many authors and poets never saw their works heralded as anything more than garbage before their deaths, only for historians to vindicate and raise them up. What’s more, many are those that were wondrously popular of their time, only to be lost in the shuffle for historical greatness. Some works speak beyond their generation, others are made solely for a generation. Just because we do not have a “Howl” is just as well–“Howl” would doubtless flounder in capturing the intricacies of the world that has grown up just in the decades since its publication. Who is to say, however, that its modern equivalent is not just around the bend, though neither its author or those waiting on the sidelines yet realize its coming? Just because the works aren’t impacting us as much RIGHT NOW does not mean in a couple decades people won’t be looking back saying, “My god, in a time where there WERE so many other media distractions, have you seen this example of beauty and wonder and raw power that emerged? THIS. IS. POETRY.”

      Thanks for contributing Nate, you made some great points.

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