I declare this land safe for sonnets and odes!

The lamentation of poetry’s death is depressing and never-ending, but we should qualify: Poetry isn’t really dead.  People sill read poetry. Contemporary poetry doesn’t sell.  That’s the real lament.

School is a fine place to read literature, and public television attempts to be literary with its English-accent soaps.

But as Sean Thomas in the Telegraph recently pointed out,

Poetry was the dominant and most prestigious literary form until the mid/late 19th century; it was seen as the ultimate form of writing (novels and plays were for ladies and plebs, like TV now).1

A novel was a greasy missive to a sentimentalist.  A poem was supernatural.

If you were a Byron, you wrote poetry, not a silly novel.

A 19th century soldier might have verse tucked away in his uniform, but he wouldn’t be caught dead with a book of sentimental prose.

Poetry was accomplishment; a novel was stooping.

In a flat-out comparison with prose, poetry wins: it does more with language and it takes greater skill to write good metrical poetry than to write good prose.

In the 19th century, men wrote poetry instead of prose (unless they were explaining something to someone a little slow) the way guys today choose to play football instead of badminton.

How did poetry become today’s badminton?

If this sounds a little sexist, it’s only to illustrate a fact about the 19th century, and this fact of sexism, this crucial residue of old behavior and competition, may be the secret cause of poetry’s downfall today.

Could poetry’s old position as the “ultimate form of writing” in the sexist 19th century be working against it, in the current social climate where competition and ranking and “the best” is frowned upon?

As Scarriet has written elsewhere, numerous talented and successful 19th century women poets are ignored by contemporary po-biz.  Their style is no longer au courant in academia.

But as we have just pointed out, this “style” of poetry was the method to express feelings and ideas in the highest manner possible; that 19th century women, as second class citizens, were able to accomplish this poetic feat apparently means nothing.  What is more important to the Modernist orthodoxy is a man (Ibsen, for instance) making a name for himself in a lesser art form (the modern play, or, more accurately, the soap opera) and raising the reputation of that art form with a man’s notion of what makes a woman “free.”

Women writers sold well in every literary genre in the 19th century; Hawthorne (d. 1864) complained of the “damned mob of scribbling women” besetting America’s higher literary aspirations—but men eventually caught on, writing best-selling cheap fiction too, and the men who made gestures to women’s freedom (often a disguised kind of sexism) were often canonized.

So women have been screwed in every way, even by modernity: Their fine poetry ignored, their popular fiction co-opted, their sexuality used by male “champions,” not to mention the more common instances of material and intellectual oppression.

As Modernism became the literary movement of the 20th century, and pulp fiction (replete with modern, loose women and speech plainer than Wordsworth’s) replaced poetry as literature’s true manly pursuit, poetry (one would think) may still have saved itself as a graceful alternative—but that was not to be, as the angel-speech of Keats/Shelley went the way of Williams/Pound.

Was poetry killed by its 19th century superiority, leaving it vulnerable to all sorts of skepticism, the weight of that superiority becoming the very weight that crushed it, as cynical “victim” politics caused an inherent mistrust of all that is “superior?”

No talented person today thinks: Let’s see, what genre shall I choose?  Poetry is the best.  I choose that.

But they once did.


1 The quote by Sean Thomas can actually be found in one of Thomas’ comments to the piece, “Seamus Heaney, the Nelson Mandella of Poetry, Just Wasn’t That Good. Sorry.”  Perhaps Thomas, and even  Heaney, saw this December 2009 piece in Scarriet.

1 Comment

  1. Gerald Parker said,

    September 5, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    Good thoughtful comments about the literary role of poetry in these benighted 20th and 21st centuries. I would add, though, that plays themselves in the past (much less seldom since) were themselves in verse, whether rhymed or not. Blank verse, indeed, has been a powerful conveyor of the drama, the rhythmic speech hammering home the action and emotions, that playwrights wished to emphasise. Oh, would that this still were so!

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