I came across this report in The Guardian, a British newspaper I hold in great esteem, because they do actual investigative journalism.
This June 1, 2014 article features statements made by broadcast journalist Jeremy Paxton, known for his provocative interviewing style. Because I live in the U.S., I don’t know who he is, but he seems well-known in the U.K. (I watched entertaining YouTube clips of him tenaciously hammering away at his evasive guests. He is rather persistent.) It is with pleasure that I learned of his call for poets to be held to account.
The reasons for poetry’s decline merit further investigation. But to speculate: for one thing, every form of art has its heyday. It arrives, it flourishes, it declines. Sure, it might linger, settling into senescence, but the enthusiasm and tradition that sustained it has faded. Classical music peaked, and so did jazz. Television, video games, animation and comic books, on the other hand, are forms of cultural expression on the ascendancy. Where readers once became lost in a novel, viewers now binge on a season of television episodes over a weekend. And while I maintain that TV shows rely heavily on titillating sex and/or violence to attract viewers, their plot structures and characters have become more complex and compelling. (And of course, you can argue that sex and violence have always had a place in the arts.) Cartoons and comic books, once only considered suitable fare for children, have graduated to a higher level. Fifty years ago, no one predicted the “graphic novel.” And finally, video games have come a long way since Pong, and they are evolving beyond providing mere adrenaline thrills.
This brings me to my next bit of speculation (which owes a debt to Neil Postman), and that is this: visual language is becoming more important than the written word. The written word, in turn, is responsible for poetry’s decline, for it displaced a previous oral tradition in which poetry flourished. Rhymes, chants, stories and proverbs are helpful to memory in a world where there are no books to consult. And books lose primacy when you can simply google or watch a YouTube video. Again, the visual is pushing aside the written, which replaced the oral. Of course, all three will remain with us, but the visual predominates. People don’t quote poems anymore, they quote lines from movies. Visual images form our cultural frame of reference: even if you don’t watch television shows, you are familiar with their names and main characters.
Another example: A coworker of mine, over 10 years younger than myself, liberally infuses her blog posts with GIF files. She’s employing visual references to popular movies to make her points. If she was a writer from 100 years ago, she might make passing references to Greek myths, with the assumption that her audience is familiar with them. This is no longer the case. If Americans know about Greek myths at all, its likely due to watching Clash of the Titans.
None of this is necessarily cause for despair. The Internet will become faster; pixel density will increase. Myths will be forgotten. The children will stop learning cursive, just as they have stopped learning Greek and Latin. In lieu of this, however, they will be fluent in computer code, design apps in middle school, and change the world in their own way.
I also believe they will return to poetry. Just as the Romantic movement reacted against the dehumanizing aspects of the Industrial Revolution, I do believe another movement will emerge to counter and resist the dominance of technology in the digital era. People will want to break free from their screens, and return to things that matter — it’s already happening.
We just need leaders to show the way. And we need the modern poetasters to try harder.