At one time, poetry as an artistic and literary form, was everywhere. It was printed in newspapers and magazines, it was memorized and repeated, it sold books in major quantities.
Is that true any more? When was the last time a recent poet or poem had a major cultural impact? The end of Game of Thrones was a cultural event. Kids lined up to buy the newest Harry Potter book. Movies, books, and TV still capture the public’s attention. But what about poetry?
In The Past
To be sure, poetry is still studied and learned in high schools and colleges across the U.S. (and the world). Students might still learn about Shakespeare’s sonnets, and write their own.
There are famous lines of poetry that have entered the cultural lexicon, from Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright” written in 1794 to 1883’s The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, now engraved on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
But these are older poems, written by long-dead poets. What about poetry that is being written today? When was the last time you memorized a poem written in, say, the last 25 years? When have you overheard someone quoting a stanza from a modern verse?
In The Present
It’s true, that there are a number of people who are active, working poets. There is a Poet Laureate of the United States. A good bookstore will have a sizable poetry section, with new releases from poets like Billy Collins or Louise Glück.
And everyday people regularly try their hand at poetry, from the humble haiku to the funny limerick, from highly structured verse to unstructured stream of consciousness.
However, poetry today has definitely lost the stature that it used to hold in our society. While poetry has the ability to capture the mood of a particular moment in public consciousness, it would seem less likely to make a major impact in society at large.
In The Future
Maybe it simply takes more time for poetry to be accepted by a large segment of the population. Maybe we won’t really know what poetry that has been written in the last decade will be repeated and memorized by schoolchildren a hundred years from now.
It’s also possible that songs fill this need and play this role in our current society. Are modern songs merely poetry set to music? Do songs and rap, which definitely have a large cultural footprint, speak for our generation the way Wordsworth or Browning did in the past? Will portions of Lin Manuel Miranda’s play Hamilton be remembered and quoted the way Frost’s Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening, written nearly a hundred years ago, is to us today?
At any rate, poetry as it was known a hundred, two hundred, five hundred years ago is quite different from what it is today. Is it still relevant?
Related questions: What are the benefits of fiction? How does creative expression help us to know ourselves better? How does vocabulary influence how you think?
7 thoughts on “Is Poetry Still Relevant?”
I think poetry is still as culturally relevant. Rap, spoken word, and poetry slams are extremely popular. Your example of Hamilton has already contributed a number of lines that have made it into the cultural lexicon, including: “I’m not throwing away my shot,” “I want to be in the room where it happens,” “Teach them how to say goodbye,” and “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story”.
I thought poetry was an essentially dead art form until I discovered spoken word. I agree with Dave that hip-hop and poetry slams have brought it back to life in a more relevant form than what might appear in literary journals. Here’s a favorite:
The form and subject of poetry has morphed through the ages.
It’s certainly not as valued today as it once was,
But, oh, how it captures the essence of reality and creativity.
Sometimes we read it in books,
Sometimes we see it on stage,
And sometimes, if we are lucky,
We find it in the vast night sky,
In the pounding of the ocean waves,
In our loved one’s smile.
Nicely put, Kathie. Thanks for responding!
A friend sent me a quote that I’ll share here:
“A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.” – Dylan Thomas
Thanks, Lee for sharing this quote. More often than not, I simply don’t understand a lot of poetry. Here is one that somehow resonates with me, and I hope with readers here:
As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I like to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace. – Denise Levertov
The Bible is full of poems. Here is a portion of Psalm 91 that speaks to me:
“For he will command his angels
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you
so that you will not dash your foot
against a stone.”