Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Is Poetry Dead?

Apotheosis of Homer


For most of its history poetry was an oral phenomenon.  Even after the advent of literacy it continued to retain this oral quality, and this immediate accessibility maintained it as a popular medium for rich and poor alike.  With few other forms of media to compete, verse continued to rise as a vehicle for reform and protest which was taken seriously.  Who now would consider a cutting epigram against the current administration to be a threat to the social order?  Yet Shelley's The Mask of Anarchy, written in response to the Peterloo Massacre, was quickly hid away by the censors.  Likewise, in tandem with the novel, poets could earn fortunes by penning epics.  Byron's Childe Harold and Tennyson's Idylls of the King were both bestsellers in their day.

In the Twentieth Century we begin to see the decline of verse.  It will be argued that poetry is more popular than ever, but popular to whom?  Among educated lovers of language it has never lost its place, but I of course mean popularity in its broader sense.  To the average person it has degenerated into little more than advertising jingles, and the lyrics to popular songs appear to be meant as mere accompaniment to the music, often requiring little or no meaning at all. 

Would the great protest songs of the Sixties have had half their effectiveness if recited rather than sung?

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