Before we proceed, let it first be stated that there never has been a “Golden age” of poetry when all the citizenry walked about with verse in their pockets and poetry sold like Harry Potter novels. Poetry has always been and ever will be a Coy Mistress. The Funeral laments have been sung over her grave by many a scholar who has mistaken her Spring Offensive for the real thing and begun The Burial of the Dead, only to find that Lady Lazarus like she rises And Death shall have no dominion, though The Sheep went on Being Dead.
A few years ago, I decided that I had served my penance for my sins against poetry and began to read her again. Not only is poetry not dead, she is in rude good health, like the aunt who drinks and smokes and yet somehow lives to 102. The natural habitat of poetry, unlike the novel, is not the book. Poetry was born in the mouths of bards millennia ago. Where people sat about a hearth or a campfire rendered inactive by night, there poetry could be found providing the entertainment. With the advent of writing, she found her way into sacred texts and scrolls of immense worth. She secreted herself within letters. She made her way into manuscripts, illuminating velum as strongly as the pigments the monks, nuns and scribes used to decorate her pages. The gentlemen named Gutenberg allowed her to multiply quicker than ever before, as she found not only books in which she could travel, but also the much more flattering and figure hugging pamphlets. When her great rival the novel came on the scene, she found herself liberated from long form narrative and began to experiment with different forms and styles. Increased literacy meant that she now found herself mouthed from magazines and journals, as well as the most stylish of salons. She has can be found in the boudoir, the bush and the battlefield. She is the voice of the tyrant and of the slave, the victor and the vanquished. She can spark a revolution or tell the innermost secrets of the human heart. She is a mercurial creature, who will find a home where ever two words can be rubbed together and the spark nurtured.
Poetry as a popular form suffers from the demands it places on the reader, it requires high levels of literacy, far higher than that required for novels. It also requires time and a willingness to be emotionally exposed. Poetry as the lecture reminds us is about excitement and emotion. (Hecq 2009) However as T.S. Eliot reminds us, “The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all. And emotions which he has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him..........Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” (Eliot, pg 10, 1932) Poetry is not a place to vent personal emotion, but a place for people to share in emotions that they do not have the language to express for themselves. It is a powerfully cathartic art form. This is something that can be seen at performance poetry events. I belong to a performance poetry group and write and perform with them at their monthly meetings. There is something special in standing up and reading a poem to an audience, of making them laugh or of reducing a pub to an awed silence on the strength of a few well chosen words. Performance poetry breaks down the literacy barriers to poetry it also changes it’s character. Sylvia Plath’s Daddy is a different experience on the page than when it is read and the final lines can be performed with the devastating anger and defiance of a human voice as the crescendo of the drumming almost jolly rhythm of the poem. This is an experience that many performance poets will describe, the immediacy and the physical nature of performance makes it a far more vital experience than that of merely reading a poem silently in a quiet room. (Rosen 2014)
The plethora of online and print journals which publish poetry, attests to the health of poetry. Poetry is not a dying art, just because she does not make her home in the easily marketed and commercialised captivity of the book does not mean that she is not happily living outside the bounds of captivity in her natural habitat.
Eliot, T.S., 1932, Selected essays 1917 – 1932, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York.
Rosen, M, 2014, Performance poetry: the word of the moment, The Guardian, viewed 19th July 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/09/performance-poetry-turner-prize-judges-spoken-word