Poetry’s Decline and Irrelevance

Jeremy Paxman says poets must start engaging with ordinary people

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.

At Man Verses Poetry, my staff and myself respond to modern poetry with indifference, if not outright hostility. Correction: I don’t have a staff. I also make no claims to be an authority on poetry, but like Paxman, I believe all artists should be held accountable for their work.
Yes, sometimes art is not appreciated because the common people are Philistines — I get that. But then again, sometimes a form of expression is justifiably marginalized because it is no longer relevant, and its existing practitioners are feeble and inept. The limited encounters I’ve had with modern poetry have convinced me that most of it lacks power and vitality — or even discipline in its creation.

                                        If it weren’t for its tell-tale layout
                                        on the printed page, a reader might not even be aware
                                        that what they’re reading
                                        is poetry.
                                        There are no rules anymore,
                                        artistic expression
                                        without limits and
                                        without structure

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.



Mick Jagger reads Shelley

I stumbled upon this on YouTube.

“On July 3, 1969, two days before the Rolling Stones were to headline a free music festival in Hyde Park, their former guitarist Brian Jones drowned in his swimming pool. What was supposed to have been a party became, instead, a memorial.

About half a million people saw the Stones perform, including Mick Jagger’s girlfriend at the time, Marianne Faithfull. Before they played, Jagger read out Shelley’s poem Adonais, and 3,500 white butterflies were released. …”

— from The Times Magazine.

Here are the stanzas from the actual poem:


  Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep —

  He hath awakened from the dream of life —

  ‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep

  With phantoms an unprofitable strife,

  And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife

  Invulnerable nothings. — We decay

  Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief

  Convulse us and consume us day by day,

And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.


  The One remains, the many change and pass;

  Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;

  Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,

  Stains the white radiance of Eternity,

  Until Death tramples it to fragments. — Die,

  If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!

  Follow where all is fled! ……..

Poetry, Pop Culture, and some thoughts on Television.

In the future, I might share more posts about the intersection of the worlds of poetry and pop culture, although I fear it could dilute my content. The integrity of my blog could be threatened, if, in an ingratiating attempt to rope in more viewers, I feature too many instances in which television and movies make passing references to poetry. On the other hand, the fact that these references are made at all serves to legitimize poetry’s relevance in the popular consciousness.

If Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad does a dramatic reading of Ozymandias, it hauls a romantic poet a few fathoms up from the depths of obscurity. A viewer, recalling the poem from high school, might be inclined to dust off Shelley’s work.  Ack, who am I kidding! A Shelley cameo doesn’t benefit Shelley — it benefits Breaking Bad. Inserting poetry helps elevate a mere TV crime drama into a grand tragedy. Even people who don’t especially like poetry can be impressed by the aura of class it bestows. And why not introduce an episode in a compelling and original way? I can’t fault the writers for that; in fact, it earns my respect.

I enjoyed Breaking Bad. And speaking of poets, Shelley had a minor role in comparison to Walt Whitman. It was a volume of Leaves of Grass, with an inscription by “W.W.”, that served as a key plot point.

But that said, this illustrates the role poetry has been reduced to. In the landscape of popular culture that’s as empty and barren as the New Mexico desert, poetry is like an undergound aquifer that occasionally gets tapped into by better screenwriters for the sake of inspiration and novelty. Other than that, it doesn’t serve much of a purpose.

I don’t oppose television. I like it. But I do object to its prominence in our lives. One of the reasons I’m even writing this blog is because my immediate neighbor had his driveway resurfaced. The construction work somehow inadvertently severed the wires carrying free cable TV to my home (this after having unsubscribed months before).

Television, like alcohol, is a socially approved drug whose abuse is consistently under-reported by those who consume it.  At most, abusers admit to occasional weekend binges, and justify their addiction with their superior taste. It’s okay in our society to be addicted to great television shows. It’s even something to brag about.

In considering our culture, it is important never to neglect this fact: if it’s not on TV or in a  movie, it might as well not exist. This applies not only to a neglected form of expression like poetry — it applies to everything of value that doesn’t get ratings. Consider knowledge of history: Americans dwell in a bizarre, ahistorical world, vaguely aware of current events, forgetful of the recent events, and almost completely oblivious of past. For many Americans, their entire knowledge of Roman civilization is limited to having seen Gladiator.

Again, I’m not against all television content. Like any technology, it can serve good and bad ends. I just wish it wasn’t the end-all and be-all of our culture. In the food pyramid of the American cultural diet, there is one main food group, and it has a recommended serving of over three hours a day. For the most part, it is devoid of nutrition.

Television’s job is to entertain. That’s its first job. It doesn’t want to elighten you, it doesn’t want to motivate you, it doesn’t want to inspire you. It wants your eyeballs, not your mind. It doesn’t want you to be happy, it wants you to consume. It doesn’t speak to your soul; it speaks to the gawking voyeur vulture that lurks in us all.

Great poetry can last well over a hundred years — but in a hundred years, who will be talking about the television shows we watch now?  The shallow ponds of popular entertainment evaporate quickly, but poetry runs deep.









Dangerfield recites Poem

I saw Back to School when I was a young teenager and loved it. It’s a fun 80s comedy, with a memorable cameo by Sam Kinison. How can you not love Rodney Dangerfield?

By the way, here is how the poem is supposed to go (Dangerfield’s character, Thorton Melon, skipped two stanzas — but then he was under a lot of pressure to pass his final exam):

Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.