How did poetry die out as a popular art form?
June 17, 2011 12:21 PM   Subscribe

How did poetry die out as a popular art form?

Poetry used to be pretty popular, at least among those who could read, right? Not "rock star" popular, but "daily poem in the newspaper, and ordinary people would actually read it" popular. Nowadays, it seems that the main audience for contemporary poetry on the page is academics. (I have the impression that there's a larger audience for performances of poetry.) How did that happen?
posted by Clambone to Media & Arts (40 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
This askme might give you some answers.
posted by headnsouth at 12:23 PM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well that's a pretty beefy assertion, has poetry died out as popular art? You go on to say "on the page" but what does it matter if poetry, based on the natural stress patterns of spoken language, is on the page?

Lyric has been and remains, doubtless, the most popular English language art form.

As for "on the page" . . . well I'd imagine the decline in readership is no more or less than that of the traditional novel form.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 12:26 PM on June 17, 2011


The practice of reading poetry silently on paper was just a transition between the popularity of speaking and writing poetry and songs, and the popularity of prose and passively listening to recorded songs. Once poetry was thought of as something to look at silently it was doomed as a popular pasttime. Looking at a rhythmical text and not being able to share it with many people, dance to it or retell it is just too esoteric and unenjoyable, and the more poetry began to be written for the eyes the worse the problem became, hence the split today between awful academic "verse" and popular music. A lot of legitimate points have been made in defense of reading poetry, but these are relative to even worse farces of active participation in media such as watching television.
posted by michaelh at 12:36 PM on June 17, 2011 [9 favorites]


My girlfriend is a (G.G. finalist) poet. The big thing that scared me off of poetry is that, very often, I just don't understand what it means. But, my woman explains, poetry isn't a riddle. There's nothing to figure out, and if you do manage to tease something out of it, you don't get to pat yourself on your back because you probably found something that wasn't intended in the first place.

I think this fact -- that nobody realizes that modern poetry is not intended to be experienced in the same ways as other kinds of writing -- really confuses people and makes them insecure about it.

When poetry was a common feature in popular media, poets were court jesters, offering satire or commentary wrapped in clever, but easily intelligible, rhymes. It's a completely different art form.
posted by klanawa at 12:39 PM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


A part of it must be competition from other types of entertainment: movies, radio, TV.
posted by Paquda at 12:39 PM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have no cite to back this up, just my personal opinion. I've always felt that popular music in the 20th century displaced the role that poetry used to play.

I'm no music scholar, but am a great fan of mid-20th century music. Often in the 20s-50s, popular music lyrics were mostly about simple topics like love, driving, going to parties, etc. Even songs that told a story were fairly simplistic. I think with the rise of folk music, song lyrics started playing a more important role - these songs weren't just entertainment, but also designed to make people think. If you look at a lot of popular songs today (aside from the Britney/Miley stuff), a lot of the lyrics are more esoteric than music from the 50s or earlier. I think we have more songs today that cause people to discuss what the song was "about" or what the "meaning" was, whereas in older songs, the meaning was more obvious.

So I think that, at least with regard to lyrics being more complex and open to interpretation, poetry as a form of expression has become less prominent in popular culture. Just MHO, I may be totally off.
posted by LaurenIpsum at 12:45 PM on June 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Matt, those are entirely valid points. I guess that, rightly or wrongly, I consider the experience of reading poetry to be categorically difference from going to watch a performance. Reading a poem alone, in silence, requires a certain amount of concentration, and generally involves re-reading. Going to a performance gets you out of the house, often while socializing and drinking. It's also ephemeral; it's possible to just let the words wash over you in a way that is very difficult with written poetry.

To use a flawed analogy, sheet music used to sell much better than it does now. You could say that sheet music lives as recorded musical performances, but they each scratch a different itch.
posted by Clambone at 12:46 PM on June 17, 2011


Hip hop embraced poetry and now it is the dominant art form in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world.
posted by Renoroc at 12:50 PM on June 17, 2011 [7 favorites]


A part of it must be competition from other types of entertainment: movies, radio, TV.

I think a part of it is competition from itself. There is just too much of it. With the appearance of the internet every chump with a glitter pen took to livejournal and started spewing lame poetry. With no poetic metafilter to sift through the crap (although I was visiting sites like these for a while), there was just too much crap to pick through.

To back up LaurenIpsum's idea, here's Jay-Z.

But to me, poetry is best when it is offering you a view of something from someone else's point of view in such a unique (to you) way that you realize another side of something. And that's pretty much all the internet is.

Or maybe it's as simple as someone back in the early 2000's should have banned the phrase "Gossamer Wings".
posted by cashman at 12:52 PM on June 17, 2011


I think a lot of it is now set to music.
posted by rmd1023 at 1:02 PM on June 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


Point being, with the ubiquitous availability of audio and video recording I'm not sure written poetry (especially the oftentimes miserably formless optical poetry) has a future or should have.

Several times I've cared to share some Berryman or WCW (etc.) with a friend and the material was utterly opaque and lifeless for them until they heard either myself or the author read it with good prosody.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 1:03 PM on June 17, 2011


To use a flawed analogy, sheet music used to sell much better than it does now. You could say that sheet music lives as recorded musical performances, but they each scratch a different itch.

Do they really "scratch a different itch"? For instance, when I was first learning guitar, I would buy books of sheet music (tablature) for guitar and learn the songs by following along with these books. However, I didn't yearn to have this specific experience; I just did it by default because it seemed like the thing to do when you're learning guitar. Pretty soon, I realized that using my own ears to figure out the parts based on the music itself works better than reading some other guitarist/transcriber's approximation of the music. In what way am I "scratching" a different "itch"? The goal is the same. As you said, the analogy is flawed, but you'd still need to explain what's so great about printed poetry, as opposed to sung or spoken poetry, so that there's even a concern about why it "died out."
posted by John Cohen at 1:07 PM on June 17, 2011


Reading a poem alone, in silence, requires a certain amount of concentration, and generally involves re-reading. Going to a performance gets you out of the house, often while socializing and drinking. It's also ephemeral; it's possible to just let the words wash over you in a way that is very difficult with written poetry.

A lot of poetry that was actually popular with regular people did not require the kind of literary analysis you are talking about. It's hard to imagine someone spending a lot of time concentrating on and re-reading poems by Ella Wheeler Wilcox (who was very popular with the public in her time but derided by contemporary intellectuals). As others have said "pop" written poetry has faded in favor of newer media, leaving most modern written poetry to the realm of literature and academics.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:09 PM on June 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


Lyric has been and remains, doubtless, the most popular English language art form.

By far. Somebody figured out that setting it to music works great, and now you have recordings so you can listen to them. So on the page has gone down, but music has exploded.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:20 PM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's because of recorded music.
posted by empath at 1:27 PM on June 17, 2011


Disclaimer: used to be a volunteer poetry editor. I don't think I was the world's best at it.

For me, it depends on the poem. A lot of them are honestly kinda incomprehensible, or boring, or too weird to follow, or too pretentious. I find myself sifting through a lot of wheat to find the chaff when I read poetry. The occasional one will be spot on awesome to me, but most of them just make me go "Meh." I don't tend to think, "Yeah, let's dig through a book of poems!" unless it's Dorothy Parker or Edna St. Vincent Millay, who are reliably good/snarky/dead on enough that I'm pretty sure I'll like more than one poem in the book.

I just finished doing a book review for a book that featured both fiction and poetry, and man, I just couldn't think of shit to say about any of the poems. The ones that had plots were easier to discuss, but I still ended up only putting 1-2 sentences per poem down and they kind of boiled down to "interesting" or "huh."

I think it's just hard to get, really. Also, it's not so crucial these days to come off as snootily well-educated and into poetry.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:33 PM on June 17, 2011


Poetry used to be published as text now much is recorded as music think Gill Scot Heron, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and many many many more.
Here is a short article on Popularising Poetry in the UK
So poetry isn't really dead at all it is just that it is being presented to us in a different medium.
posted by adamvasco at 1:39 PM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm inclined to agree with michaelh. Though it does seem conspicuous that the "decline" corresponded, more or less, with the rise of free verse. When the form lost its codification, it became inaccessible for the masses. The condition's not unique to poetry. Consider modern art or, even worse, modern dance.
posted by vecchio at 1:40 PM on June 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


Well, for one thing, it's barely taught in schools anymore.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:53 PM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Read the askme that headnsouth linked to as the first answer to your question.

"Poetry is in a death spiral. Its practitioners have turned away from the general population in favor of the academic, meta, self-referential, inward, cliquey. As regular readers fall away, more and more poets fight for audience share among the incestuous academic devotees who remain. Honestly, we're already pretty much at the point where only other poets read poetry.

I don't believe that this was inevitable or simply a product of television and the movies. Poetry (creative culture in general?) took an unfortunate turn a while back, and now poets are stranded in the desert. They cut themselves off from the world.

I am pretty sure this is already happening in fiction, but it is at a much less advanced stage."

I agree with you that people who are comparing poetry to music are missing the point. This is why.
posted by fugitivefromchaingang at 2:07 PM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is the kind of topic that opens the door to a lot of "kids these days" ranting, but, at the risk of getting all O CAPTAIN MY CAPTAIN on you, I have to wonder if the way poetry is taught in schools has killed the appreciation of poetry for most people. In high school, it's all about picking apart each line for the symbols, psychoanalyzing the poet, etc. Then in college you have these classes where the poems are immediately reduced to their simplest political/cultural statements. The message conveyed is that poems are a lot of work for little reward.

I recently watched the PBS series Bill Moyers: The Language of Life, which consists of poetry readings from a big poetry festival, and interviews with some of the poets, and it went a long way towards reminding me of what I used to like about poetry. Especially hearing the poems of Linda McCarriston, dealing with her childhood abuse -- brutally powerful, but hearing her read them aloud actually brought tears to my eyes. I highly recommend that series, actually -- yeah, there are some esoteric, academic types, but also quite a few who are a reminder that poetry can still be a very grounded, relevant literature with its own unique power and authority.
posted by Pants McCracky at 2:27 PM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I wish I had any idea where I read this, but someone (a writer, I think) said something to the effect that the rise of advertising displaced poetry. Advertising uses slogans and wordplay, and often looks to use simple but clever language. As advertising became more prominent in society, poetry moved towards more esoteric forms. Poetry used more effusive and verbose language, becoming more academic in nature, and more cut off from the average person who would have normally read poetry, because more plain-spoken wordplay had been claimed by advertising copywriters.

That was this writer's theory. I don't know how much I agree, but it's some food for thought. I will now withdraw from the discussion in preparation for being ripped to shreds by people who know way more about poetry than I do...
posted by malapropist at 3:24 PM on June 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Poetry was never popular. Anyone who says otherwise is on a nostalgia trip.
posted by seanyboy at 3:26 PM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some of it is economic. Poetry has always been published but rarely sold really well; as the costs of publishing rose (rather dramatically), it became less viable to publish less profitable titles.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:40 PM on June 17, 2011


Modernism happened. After Eliot and Proust, most poets think their work has to be abstruse, opaque, self-referential, and impenetrable. I love poetry, but hate modern poetry.
posted by zachawry at 3:59 PM on June 17, 2011


Not Proust. Pound.
posted by zachawry at 4:01 PM on June 17, 2011


Great point, malapropist. I'm surprised too that nobody has mentioned the dreaded "diminished attention span." Poems, even old, pre-modern poems, often had to be read more than once to be appreciated.
posted by vecchio at 4:22 PM on June 17, 2011


Modernism happened. After Eliot and Proust, most poets think their work has to be abstruse, opaque, self-referential, and impenetrable. I love poetry, but hate modern poetry.

Sigh....yet another unfounded generalization about modernism.
posted by oohisay at 4:39 PM on June 17, 2011


As others have said, it's been surpassed by modern forms, particularly song. Poetry had two functions: narrative and emotion. Homer, Chaucer, etc. would have been a cheap way to hear stories at one point. Stage drama like the greek plays were good at narrative, but expensive to put on. Poetry needs one person reciting which is cheaper and thus popular. Then as the narrative function of poetry was overtaken by plays, novels and then movies, the emotional aspect of poetry remained. Sonnets, lyrics, and so on, could be quite emotional without being expected to tell a story. Now the emotional need for poetry is met by popular song. Just as everything in our culture has become specialized, poetry has become a specialty form of storytelling (i.e. Howl) or relating emotion (most modern poetry).
posted by acheekymonkey at 4:52 PM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oops. Meant to add:

A major issue, I think, is attention span. To really get "into" poetry, you need to pay attention. You can't just pick it up here and there like a novel (generalizing, yes, but there you go). Poetry requires a kind of deep reading few people really want to engage in, because, as others have said, we have other forms that require less work (like music or the internet). Heck, I've studied literature for over a decade and I still can't marshal sufficient mental resources to really read The Prelude or anything of that magnitude. If I can't do it, imagine how hard it is for an 18 year-old with no attention span. Reading poetry requires training. Few are willing to put in the time either to train or be trained. (And neither high school nor university does a good job of training.)

Also, to follow up from mild disagreement with zachawry, it isn't that poetry is "impenetrable" or inherently difficult, it's just that it's a different kind of reading. Even poems that aren't, ahem, "self-referential," "abstruse," or "opaque" require careful reading.

And, just to be difficult, let's not all forget about this.
posted by oohisay at 4:54 PM on June 17, 2011


On preview: DRAT! I agree, vecchio! And.....I'm out.
posted by oohisay at 4:56 PM on June 17, 2011


oohisay, I agree that even good poems require careful, multiple readings.

The author has a deal with the reader, though, that multiple careful readings will be rewarded with understanding and significant meaning. Someone like Dylan Thomas, for instance, keeps his part of the promise. Many of his poems have to be read many times to "get", but at the end the payoff is there. And, let's face it, the language is just achingly beautiful.

With modernism, though, many poets began to reneg on this deal. Work at penetration results in no revelation to make it worth it. And beautiful language seems to be seen as an anachronism.

There are exceptions, but not many.
posted by zachawry at 6:03 PM on June 17, 2011


I agree with the "it's because of recorded music" diagnosis. Most early poetry consisted of written-down song lyrics. Writing preceded musical notation, and even after various forms of musical notation were invented, reading was much more wide spread than being able to read music. In the presence of literacy but not recordings, lyrics could spread fairly easily among literate people, but melodies couldn't. To get that you'd have to know somebody who knew the song and learn to sing it or play it. In that context, written lyrics without music took on a life of their own. Poetry still stuck to musical meters mostly, was often read and recited in a rhythmic style different from ordinary speech, and was often set to music.

With the invention of sound recording, sung lyrics became a lot more accessible. You could learn songs, the melody and the lyrics, without you or the song writer or the person writing it down having to know how to read and write music. Poetry didn't die, but it merged back into music.

I don't buy the idea comprehensibility making a difference. Song lyrics frequently don't make literal sense, and fans spend a lot of time arguing over what lyrics mean.
posted by nangar at 6:07 PM on June 17, 2011


I think the kind of poetry that was popular became unfashionable: but more, the social venues that kept it alive among the general population (long winters with little entertainment, family reading aloud, teaching by memorization and recital, amateur poetry for civic events) changed. Add to this the slow death of the idea that class is conveyed by the ability to do parlor presentations of high art, and you have poetry more and more reduced to some of the things it is now: political and identity statements, aid to a kind of semi-meditative inwardness, an intellectual puzzle-game for academics, or whatever.

To the academics who preserve that sort of poetry (I'm one), a lot of once genuinely popular poetry in the vein of Longfellow is not terribly interesting or fun to teach or engage deeply with over a lifetime. So professors tend to privilege the difficult, which further alienates those who don't share the passion.
posted by LucretiusJones at 6:30 PM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Poetry used to be published as text now much is recorded as music think Gill Scot Heron, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and many many many more.

Yup, Dylan etc both killed poetry and sent it through the stratosphere. Long live poetry.
posted by philip-random at 7:08 PM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hip hop embraced poetry and now it is the dominant art form in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world.

"Corner Bodega" a randomly selected Fiddy Cent poem...
Aight, check this shit out
Y'all niggaz gon' stay in the car
I'm'a go right over here and see somethin
Gimme ten minutes, If I don't come out, y'all come in
The money stays in the car 'til I say so...
Aiyyo, whattup whattup, man
This is what y'all niggaz is workin' wit' for 22 cents a gram?


Yep, you can still detect the Frost or Eliot in there, agonizing over a single line for months, packing in layers of allusion.
posted by codswallop at 11:47 PM on June 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Next up, judging how drama has handled the transition to film/television by examining a Listerine commercial.
posted by rmd1023 at 3:52 AM on June 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'm also of the opinion that, through hip hop, poetry is alive and well and strong as it has ever been. In a quality rap song, you'll hear assonance, consonance, interior rhyme scheme, metaphor, simile, adroit cultural allusions, symbolism, all the stuff that makes reading and hearing poetry so thrilling.

As for the more classical understanding of the art form, I think this point:

Poetry is in a death spiral. Its practitioners have turned away from the general population in favor of the academic, meta, self-referential, inward, cliquey. As regular readers fall away, more and more poets fight for audience share among the incestuous academic devotees who remain. Honestly, we're already pretty much at the point where only other poets read poetry.

rings true, unfortunately, at least about the leather-elbow-patches crowd. But in terms of popular poetry? I'm not sure if it's ever been more widely consumed and enjoyed.
posted by EatTheWeak at 11:55 AM on June 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Also pretty random, just something I was listening to this morning :
What will I do now? It's like I've lost a child, the melodies have abandoned my star, and didn't come to me.

How is it I'm alone? It's like the notes are bereaved and my instrument is gone ...
posted by nangar at 1:55 PM on June 18, 2011


Yep, you can still detect the Frost or Eliot in there, agonizing over a single line for months, packing in layers of allusion.

I'm not a rap fan, but I do try to be well-read and read poetry. I write it, and I do performance poetry. But I find I'm more inspired by Bob Dylan, Craig Finn, and John Darnielle than by modern poetry. Honestly, I blame it on my own laziness. But you can find a song lyric to suit basically any temperament.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:26 PM on June 19, 2011


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