The collapse of poetry

The 14th-century poet Guillaume de Machaut reading his poems to an verse-thirsty audience in a Parisian manuscript (Paris, BnF, Français 1586 f.173)

No critique of our culture would be complete without a statement about (read: indictment of) the decline of the role, status and utility of poetry.

Of all the major cultural shifts in the West’s transition from the premodern to the modern age, the diminution of Poetry is the one which has been almost totally neglected.

We read poems and promote their authors for a variety of reasons today, but poetry as an essential tool of cultural reproduction, mass entertainment and sacred communication is gone. The bards are gone (poet laureates may be seen as a substitute, but not really); epic poems are gone; versification competitions are gone; cryptic prophecy is gone.

Homer is asleep and the Homeridae are silent.

Our society is versed in all things, except verse.

Instead we have professional(ised) poets and poetry, published and unpublished verse and the general retreat of poetry into a narrow niche of highbrow literary activity.

Social, communal, liturgical poetry doesn’t exist anymore. Poems are personal, private, intimate, original. Their circulation is restricted and their social usefulness zero.

Poets used to be the curators of social memory. Now they are published authors and their works fill the backshelves of our book stores and public libraries. Readers go in search of poetry only occasionally, for beauty and personal testimony only.

In the marketplace of words and ideas, poetry has a stall facing the wall.

4 Comments

  1. I don’t think it is entirely true. Rather than becoming obsolete and highbrow, modern poetry has returned to its natural association with music. Today, influential poets are songwriters and rappers, providing crisp and lasting expression of the current Zeitgeist, moving the hearts of millions with their words.

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    1. Thanks for this. I agree rap may be an interesting exception, but poetic song is rare these days. Most songwriting happening in Western societies is more of a commercial enterprise than it is heartfelt poetry. I would argue that most influential poets are not songwriters, and songwriters writing songs worthy of poetry such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are a rare and dying breed – and certainly not the figures most people, especially the young generation, looks up to. I’d love to be wrong on this.

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  2. In addition to the power of lyrics today, consider other societies today that value poets and poetry, for example Russia. Their society is a barren shell even worse off in every metric than the rest of the “West” and yet they still honor poetry.

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    1. Thanks for this. I agree, but Russia is a case à part. Its modernisation took a different turn from that of the West. I believe that the ‘Russian soul’ responsible for the honouring, as you say, of poetry’ is largely a remnant of premodernity (and it’s by no means a negative judgement).

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