“Literal people scare me / out there trying to rid the world of its poetry.”
- Literal, Ani Difranco
How many times have you been asked who your favourite musician is? I’m guessing plenty. How about your favourite author, actor or artist? Again, undoubtedly nothing out the ordinary. However, how many times has somebody asked you who your favourite poet is? And if they did, would you honestly have an answer? You will have to excuse my sweeping generalisation, but the answer is most probably that you don’t have a favourite poet, nor do you overly care about having one. The reason for this appears to be as clear as glass: Poetry is dead.
Long live poetry.
What I have personally always enjoyed about the literary art is how hard it is to actually define. In a paper on the concept of poetry by a Polish historian of aesthetics, it is pointed out that “Poetry [...] is an art based on language. But poetry also has a more general meaning [...] that is difficult to define because it is less determinate: poetry expresses a certain state of mind.” I think this is one of the best descriptions of the concept of poetry I have ever come across. In my eyes, poetry is a form of art produced to make us feel something. To open our minds and make us see completely different dimensions to the world around us.
I guess my love for verse parallels my love for language and lyrics. I loved studying poetry in my English classes at school and thoroughly enjoyed analysing each stanza and exploring the hidden meanings behind them. Still to this day nothing touches me more in lyricism than the clever use of imagery or a metaphor. In the same vein, although my love for music is obviously influenced by its sound, I have always been drawn specifically to a song’s lyrical content. Once I discovered Ani Difranco at fifteen-years-old my perspective of poetry was widened even further. Her reflective, agile way with words inspired me immeasurably and blurred the boundaries between poetry in music and poetry in print.
Despite my personal feelings, there is no denying the fact that poetry is essentially insignificant in modern-day culture. So what killed it?
It could be argued that the answer to this question is either enormously layered or entirely transparent. Perhaps postmodernism is to blame; many people who don’t read poetry (undeniably the majority of society) feel it is hard to understand or relate to. Fictional books about wizards and vampires go on to become worldwide bestsellers while poetry books find it hard to even make the printers. It’s no secret that poetry does not pay the rent, leading many poets to abandon the craft altogether.
Perhaps this is the issue. There is no commercial viability to poetry. No gloss, no hype, no image. In our society, music is often a product that can be bottled up and sold with a great big marketing campaign wrapped around it like a ribbon. It’s about how much revenue Apple or Amazon can make from ‘Little Monsters’ – or ‘Little Consumers’ – downloading Lady Gaga’s latest single for the latest iPod. It is a multi-billion dollar industry that makes poetry appear invisible and irrelevant in comparison. In an age where nearly all communication is made through screens and wires, people just don’t have the patience to sit down and unravel the mysteries behind a Sylvia Plath or a Judy Grahn.
However, it would appear that there is still potential for poetry to experience a rebirth in the 21st century. In 2002, heiress Ruth Lilly made a $100 million donation to the Poetry Foundation that produces Poetry Magazine, the most widely read magazine of its kind in the world. This gift allowed for the Poetry Foundation to establish the Poetry Slam in America, where hundreds of thousands of young poets compete against one another each year. They recite their work in expressive and powerful ways, bringing the skill right up to date.
It also appears that poetry is continuing its evolution into the Digital Age, with a focus on how literary arts can intertwine with technology. The publishing company Faber recently took TS Eliot into a whole new digital dimension with the launch of an iPad app based on his iconic monolithic poem, The Waste Land. The exciting app includes a video performance of the poem, notes, commentaries, and readings from Ted Hughes, Viggo Morensen, and Eliot himself.
As a huge fan of Eliot and his said legendary creation, I was more than a little sceptical about the piece being turned into an electronic spectacle. Call me old-fashioned, but in my eyes there really is no substitute to the smell and feel of an old book. In spite of this, I can say I was pleasantly surprised at how the touch-screen tablet presented the classic in an entirely new light. Suddenly, the prospect of bringing something as organic and emotionally raw as poetry into a futuristic realm filled me with enthusiasm and artistic stimulation. It goes to show that the time-honored literary art could still have relevance and exist graciously in today’s world.
More than ever before, the possibilities for creation are becoming limitless. Over the last century poetry has been drowned out and crucified by social media, music videos, and the galactic blogosphere. However, perhaps now truly is the time for it to have its second coming and unite with a world that functions predominately through wires.