In the 1800’s poetry was regarded as one of the high arts, something that highlighted the best of our Christian Civilization. Poetry was refined, yet still earthy, mostly secular but rarely profane, it was a way of telling stories that was ancient, while still seeming modern. But over the last century poetry has fallen out of fashion. It certainly didn’t happen overnight and it didn’t happen quietly. Many people saw the decline and struggled to fight back against it. It was a struggle that also engulfed all of the ‘high’ arts. Painting, classical music and to a lesser degree literature were all casualties.
I wrote about this in another post:
Or if you’d like to listen to a podcast on the subject, I’ve done that as well”
So what made poetry fall out of fashion?
Traditionally all art was about glory and secondly about beauty. The purpose of art, including poetry was to glorify something, to glorify God, the King, the Empire, the Faith, the Patron. No matter who it was done for it was to show them in the best possible light, to highlight someone other than the Artist. But since the 1800’s we have seen that that focus has changed, instead of the subject being glorified, it instead became the glorification of the Artist. Who was then left to justify why that should be, which lead to the Artist becoming more important than the subject. Which lead to more than its fair share of naval gazing. Poetry was not immune from this process, it took part just like the other high arts. The Poet was expected not to glorify the external, but the internal. That is quite the turnaround.
Further, during the 1800’s ideas about equality spread, but I think that the greatest effect on poetry was mass education. As more and more people could read and write it meant that more and more people read poetry. The demand for poetry increased, as did the amount of people writing poetry. You would think that would increase the amount of good poets. Poets would be revealed that otherwise would never have been discovered. To a degree that was true, it did showcase Poets who would otherwise have never written. Sadly it also brought out a ton of bad poets and bad poetry. Which began to spoil the high quality that people had come to expect. One of the things that had served Poetry and all of the high arts was that it had high entry standards. Not everyone could join and it was exclusionary by design. Over time that went away and anyone could become a Poet. Which diluted the quality and the trust that people had in the form. If anyone can do it then what’s special about it?
I think that radio and then television were also great factors in the ending of poetry as a high art. There is something special about seeing a performer live and that includes a poetry reading. There is also something special about a book. Both involve a sense of intimacy, a sense that this is something personal, even that this is something that the Poet has shared with only me. While radio and television can certainly reveal poetry to people who would not normally be exposed to it, it rarely has that sense of intimacy. Instead it is a shared experience because you know that others are also partaking. Again this wasn’t something that happened overnight but over time it ate away at that intimate experience. Of course there was also something that we are very familiar with today, that there are only so many hours in the day and if you’re watching television you’re not reading. Slowly that thing that you once said and felt that you couldn’t live without slips away.
Can any of this be fixed?
I think the easiest one to fix is the navel gazing, because I do think that Poets and other Artists can look outside of themselves. I think that in the future it will be encouraged again for them to glorify things other than themselves. How far away that future is I have no idea, but I do think that there will come a time when these things are valued again.
I also think that technology can be used to expose the multitudes to good poetry, both from the past and the present. It is a double-edged sword, but we should not lose sight of the idea that that means it can serve us just as easily as it can work against us.
The biggest problem is equality, the basic problem that it has unleased is one I don’t have an answer for. The sheer volume is something that only good editors can defend us against. Editors who are rare today but you can live in hope.