Poetry is an art form of the highest order, in my opinion. There is an insurmountable number of images, ideas, thoughts and dreams can be created, suggested, revealed or hidden through stanza, couplet and line. Poetry is up there, as an art form, with painting or sculpture in terms of how culturally important it has been to various civilisations throughout the ages. In terms of the arts, painting, sculpture and poetry have been seen as the highest art forms in the West since Ancient Greek society. However, after thousands of years of cultural hedgemony, is poetry dying – or at least declining – in the hands of the 21st century, becoming the sick man of the arts?
The poetry of the 21st century can easily be defined. It’s predominantly free verse, with little to no set rhythm or rhyme to it. It’s often fairly short, compared to the sprawling poetic epics of the past. This follows the trend set by the Beat poets, such as Ginsberg or O’Hara, who snubbed conventional rhyme and rhythm to revolutionary effect in the 1950’s. However, is this actually becoming a problem in today’s poetry?
Well, no, not really, to give the immediate answer. It’s not free verse that’s the problem. Many poets such as Norman McCaig and Stevie Smith use free verse to great effect. The problem is with free verse being abused. Too many poets are simply using free verse as a get out clause so that they don’t have to put in any effort to rhyme or keep a consistent rhythm or style. An example would be “An Open Letter to my Ex-Boyfriend” by Kelly Blaus, which the poet herself shared on Twitter. This particular poem caught my eye and attracted my ire. It’s shockingly bad. Awful, cliched, self-obsessed pap. From the tiresome cliches (“I’m tip-toeing on a tightrope // bordering between // broken glass”), the abuse of enjambement to the point it becomes meaningless (“You see” “I know” “sometimes” “I can be extreme”, “Well, “and “Fuck it” are apparently so important they merit a full line) and the conclusion that only links back to the previous stanza, when the first stanza gave a good opportunity for a good conclusion, this is a truly dreadful poem. The worst part? Not the poetry itself. The fact someone actually published it. Yes, you can buy Blaus’ book for $13.49. That’s £10, for which you could buy a Penguin Modern Classic as well as a Little Black Classic, and still have money left over. Blaus is 18, and fair play, she’s doing well for someone so young. However, that doesn’t excuse the poor quality of the poem, which is actually being praised by some as deep and meaningful, when, really, it has all the depth of a paddling pool, or a Taylor Swift song.
In the modern era, nothing I have seen has the impact of Burns or the wit of Wilde or the precocious sensitivity of Shelley. Nobody can conjure up images like O’Hara, give off warmth like Smith, make us laugh like Milligan or make us cry like Silverstein. Rupi Kaur is touted as a great poet, to extreme derision by some. One side argues that Kaur’s exploration and overcoming of her abuse through poetry makes her work a masterpiece. Others argue it’s simply throwing words onto a page with a random line break thrown in to appear meaningful and poetic – anyone could do that, they say. In my view, while Kaur’s work helped her come through her abuse, that doesn’t make the poetry itself exempt from artistic criticism. Those who rabidly defend Kaur’s poetry should read Barthes’ theory of The Death of the Author, where all that should be considered when making judgement is the book or poem itself, not the author or poet. Kaur’s struggles aren’t a reason for her work to escape literary criticism, which it certainly merits.
Having been through these examples, the point I’m making is that modern poetry is often underwhelming, shallow or simply poor poetry. All those line breaks give the poem a cold, distant feel, alienating the reader. The lack of rhyme and rhythm mean there’s no tension or atmosphere in the poem – read Tam O’ Shanter by Robert Burns, where the rhyming and pacing increases the tension, building up to the adrenaline rush of the chase. By the end, you’re panting for breath alongside the eponymous Tam, having escaped the cold embrace of the Witches in Alloway Kirk. Something like that simply isn’t there in the works of poets like Kaur or Carol Ann Duffy. Using poetry to tell stories is also a lost art – most poets nowadays focus on relationships, themselves, feelings or environments. Tales of bravery, heroism, excitement and adventure have vanished from poetry.
Another problem is that due to social networks, poetry is now more commonplace. More people are writing poetry, which is a good thing. There’s now a greater audience for it, which is, again, a good thing. The bad part is that many people surround themselves in an echo chamber of praise, or convince themselves they’re the next Pablo Neruda, forgetting that good poetry cannot be written by simply anyone. Colin Andrew Yost has convinced himself so, and types out poems on his typewriter before sticking a cigarette (or sometimes a whole packet if he’s feeling especially #inspired or #deep) below or beside them. He then uploads the photos to Instagram. You’ve probably seen the tweet mocking his awful attempts at aesthetics. Is this a portrait of a modern poet? Is this it?
However, there is reason not to despair. It often takes years for poets to be properly recognised for greatness. Much like how Van Gogh was only considered a genius some years after his death, many poets aren’t recognised properly until decades, even centuries after their deaths. Robert Burns never made a living off of his work, and had a variety of other occupations, including simple farming and tax collecting, before he drank himself to death at 36. Today Burns Suppers are celebrated all over the world. Oscar Wilde was persecuted, discredited, and thrown in jail, dying penniless. Countless poets have been thrown into asylums and decried as “lunatics” in their lifetime. Chatterton, after committing suicide in poverty at the age of 17, wasn’t even recognised as a poet himself until roughly 200 years after his death. The Bronte sisters had to pretend to be men to get their work – some of the best in English literature – published at all.
We may be producing a generation of great poets today, who will be recognised as geniuses in years to come, and we simply will not be able to see their work in that way in our lifetimes. So perhaps poetry isn’t in decline. Perhaps we are just unable to perceive the greatness of today’s poets – and perhaps the poets who will come to be recognised as defining this era are writing, listening, growing, and their genius is lying dormant. Or maybe we simply haven’t seen them yet, and they are waiting for a publisher, a benefactor to get them into our public eye. To say poetry is in decline would be too melodramatic – I think this prestigious art form is simply lying dormant.
By Gabriel Rutherford