Who are the real poets today?
Imagine the bulk of our culture was lost. A few thousand years from now it seems quite possible we would leave only as much trace as the Greeks and Romans, which is not much compared to everything that could be left. What would we want to be left behind, if we could choose to preserve certain works specially, to demonstrate our poetical culture?
To begin with, the answers are fairly obvious. Fragments of Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth are essential. We might bicker about some of the other names, but it’s all fairly well known. The serious confusion comes in the Twentieth Century, after music becomes widespread through technology.
At that point, two things happen.
First, poetry gets very highbrow, somewhat arcane, and loses its audience. As Dana Gioia showed so well, this was linked to the way poets became professionally clustered around a series of academic and funding opportunities. We have more poetry than ever before, but it is written for, and judged by, other people who have some sort of professional or aspirational stake in the industry. The common reader is largely locked out of the system — and when you read the poetry, it shows.
Meanwhile, music lyrics had a century of unparalleled popularity. While modern poetry got increasingly unfathomable, song lyrics replicated the aesthetic success of the Elizabethans. You could create a miscellany of writers like Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Noel Coward, and The Beatles, and give a convincing argument that here was a second Elizabethan age of the English language lyric.
The recent winner of the Nobel Prize, Louise Glück, once said she was not interested in widening her audience. This is emblematic of the way the modern poetry establishment works, and is a serious break with the past. It used to be socially unthinkable to be a published poet, and many Tudor and Renaissance writers kept their work as a secret among friends. But then the idea of poetic fame came into play. To be a Milton or a Shakespeare was the great ideal, to reach readers.
That lives on today with some writers — Heaney, Oliver, Plath, Collins — and you might say there is no real problem. Poetry has always had a large audience for a small number of poets. But what represents the lyric mode of our time better: Free verse with obscure meanings, or formal song lyrics that almost all of us have memorised unconsciously?
The Great American Songbook, the classics of Rock & Roll, 1970s hits, Motown, RnB, Rap, HipHop — these are the places where many of our great poetic artists will be discovered. Snobbery about printed lyrics in books makes it difficult for us to see this. A lingering suspicion that poetry ought to be learned, difficult, technical, tempts us to think of poets as something different from lyricists.
And if poets were still doing non-lyrical work, that would be true. When poets wrote satires, epigrams, and epics they needed all that flummery. You don’t become Milton or Horace without deep, scholarly knowledge. But the idea that the lyric, which is all that most poets write now, ought to be treated the same way is ridiculous and anachronistic.
Think of the great lyrics of the past: Sappho, Herrick, Frost. These poems are immediate, vivid, and accessible. The most enduring form of all, the sonnet, is rarely beyond the comprehension of the average person. The eternal lines of poetry — ‘gather ye rosebuds while ye may’, ‘some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice’ — are entirely concerned with the widening audience Louise Glück avoided.
The way professional poetry has tried to take the lyric away from popular culture is a huge failing. A song like I Will Survive alone has had more positive, aesthetic cultural impact than entire generations of modern poets. Elizabethan poetry was largely quarried out of song books and reprinted as verse. In the distant future, it seems plausible that a similar process would have the work of Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan sharing the page with Heaney & Co far more readily than most of what we call poetry. Poetry emerged from the culture of the sung lyric, and that is where, in part, it is going back to.
There is an immediacy to great poetry — lines like ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’, ‘I measure out my life in coffee spoons’, ‘The only way round is through’ stay with us as soon as we hear them. Isn’t the same thing true of so many lyrics from the last hundred years of popular music — ‘Did you think I'd lay down and die?
Oh no, not I, I will survive’, ‘And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make’, ‘They're writing songs of love, but not for me.’
There is, of course, professional resistance to these ideas from many poets, which betrays their credentialism more than their principles. We see this nowhere more strongly than in the popularisation of lyric poetry online: insta poets.
Here’s what PNR, one of the most respected poetry magazines in the UK, published about Rupi, the wildly successful insta poet.
WHY IS THE POETRY WORLD pretending that poetry is not an art form? I refer to the rise of a cohort of young female poets who are currently being lauded by the poetic establishment for their ‘honesty’ and ‘accessibility’ – buzzwords for the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft that characterises their work.
The short answer is that artless poetry sells.
Put the poetry to one side and you could be listening to a black cab driver talking about Uber. It’s telling, I think, that the PNR article makes a comparison to Trump. The high brow poets feel under threat from a new technology. There’s an awful lot of status riding on the closed shop of the modern poetry industry.
But who’s more likely to get preserved along with the song lyricists in our speculative future miscellany? Rupi or the poetry of PNR?
I’m not here to defend insta poetry as exclusively good poetry. I don’t read it as much as many people. I’m not a big Kate Tempest fan, for example. But that’s not the way you judge literature. The test is simple. Here’s Samuel Johnson laying it out.
Johnson praised John Bunyan highly. ‘His Pilgrim's Progress has great merit, both for invention, imagination, and the conduct of the story; and it has had the best evidence of its merit, the general and continued approbation of mankind. Few books, I believe, have had a more extensive sale.’
People like insta poetry. Now, most of it may well be trash, but that’s like most of the artful, high brow poetry that gets published too. Johnson also tells us that ‘the essence of poetry is invention’: most modern poetry is assessed and directed by people at the same institutions, with the same degrees, the same connections. No wonder it all sounds so similar, meeting the demands of its genre as reliably as positive affirmations printed on posters of sunsets.
And it’s not even like the insta poets sit so far outside the tradition: Rupi reminds me of no-one more strongly than the original lyricist, Sappho.
I don’t read Ancient Greek, so I can only read translations. And, to be fair to the insta poets, who are not judged on their context only on their ‘artless’ poetry, I’ll leave aside any of the context about who Sappho was, which I think plays an outsized role in much of the appreciation of her writing.
Let’s start with a famous fragment:
Come, holy tortoise shell,
my lyre, and become a poem.
I’m not sure this is so much better than most of what Rupi writes. Here’s three other translations, if you want to compare. You can put it in more formal register, break the lines differently, but it comes down to the same thing.
Compare it to this, by Rupi.
i am a museum full of art
but you had your eyes shut
Here’s another Sappho poem I wouldn’t be so surprised to see on Instagram:
Virginity, virginity, when you leave me,
where do you go?
I am gone and never come back to you.
I never return.
Are her line breaks here really any better than Rupi’s above? The translation is the most highly thought of. Is it so different in tone or style?
How about when Rupi writes this, is she so awful?
I will not subject myself to their ideology
cause slut shaming is rape culture
virgin praising is rape culture
There’s some rather neat, if not obvious, use of technique that reinforces the basic structure and message of that short poem.
Here’s one more comparison, this time using two longer poems.
You lay in wait
behind a laurel tree,
you a woman
wanderer like me.
I barely hear you,
you came in your
and suddenly: beauty
of your garments.
Note the repeated use of garments in the last two lines, like Rupi repeated ‘rape culture’ in the poem above. To the literary type, this is concise, honed, ‘worked on language’, and yet when Rupi uses the same techniques in the following poem, she is part of the new insurgency that’s going to bring the culture of poetry to its knees.
into this mess
i always let him
tell me i am beautiful
and half believe it
i always jump thinking
he will catch me
at the fall
i am hopelessly a lover and
a dreamer and
that will be
the death of me
‘I always jump thinking/ he will catch me/ at the fall.’ What lovely bathos. Rearrange the lines a little and you’re dealing with classic English language love poetry here. Of course, not the best English language love poetry, but go ahead and read the anthologies. A lot of poetry that is honoured in one generation is seen as sentimental, cliched, or just plain naff later on. Look at Cowley.
‘I am hopelessly a lover and dreamer,’ is a perfectly respectable line of verse (repeat it to yourself, it’s really quite good) that I suspect most people would sooner memorise than most of what gets written by the poets who are angry that this poem was printed by a ‘respectable’ publisher.
The easiest criticism of insta poets is their line breaks, which often feel random. But the same can be said of much high brow poetry. Ted Kooser, former US poet laureate, made exactly that criticism of his contemporaries in The Poetry Home Repair Manual.
The important thing is not whether Rupi is as good as Sappho. It’s about appreciating that the reasons for disliking that kind of poetry are not as simple as they look. Rupi meets the requirements of her genre, but it's a threat to a different sort of genre, so they dunk on it. It’s the oldest story in poetry.
There’s much to be said about why this argument is happening now. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that we are leaving the Gutenburg Parenthesis — when was the last time the arts establishment didn’t express scepticism of social media or tech and the internet generally? But we won’t get into that now.
The point today is that when we are eventually left for scraps, I suspect that the bits they find of us from popular song lyrics and the insta poets are often just as likely to get subsumed into the long, ancient, infinitely diverse tradition of poetry, as what we formalise as poetry. Much of that poetry is excellent and worth preserving. Much much more of it will be preserved only for its academic interest, and the way it illustrates the culture of creative writing courses, much less for its poetic value.
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