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?