I have loved poetry since the age of seventeen when I discovered Byron, Keats, and Shelley. As I matured, I came to love deeper masters like Virgil, Spenser, Donne, Milton, and Tennyson, as well as Homer and Dante in translation. But something bad happened to poetry about a hundred years ago, so that many of today's readers are completely turned off toward poetry. It doesn't have to be that way. In my CAN blogs I will encourage a revival of good-quality poetry that can be enjoyed by ordinary readers, and I'll describe and illustrate techniques that can make it that way. But first, let's review the progress of poetry from what it once was into the present unfavorable situation.
In really ancient times, several thousand years back, most of the important things written were written in poetry. The idea seems to have been that the most notable events or thoughts should be recorded in the most notable language. A lot has happened since then, and the prevalence of either poetry or prose has varied in different periods. The Renaissance gave us some of the most glorious poetry ever written, though it also brought the invention of the personal essay (Montaigne, Bacon). The creation of modern science in the seventeenth century gave rise to a new kind of prose that we now call technical writing. But, ironically, the writer most influential in its development was John Dryden, the premier English poet of the latter half of that century.
The novel as an art form had its beginnings in the eighteenth century and grew to full fruition in the nineteenth, though poetry (as practiced by writers like Pope, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and others) continued to have large audiences. Even in the early twentieth century, Robert Frost and Edward Arlington Robinson could actually make a living as poets.
But by WW I, the Imagists and other avant-garde groups were moving poetry away from the general public and writing to smaller and smaller audiences, growing more esoteric and obscure, until most readers simply went somewhere else.
The result was, so to speak, a divorce of poetry from the audience that had sustained it through recent centuries. And that situation, for the most part, has prevailed through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. In a rarified atmosphere with a significant element of narcissism, poets-as-conscious-artists write to other poets-as-conscious-artists, while potential readers in the general public turn to more rewarding media.
My message here and at Blue Ridge and other writers' conferences is that this situation does not have to be permanent. I believe that what has been called a divorce is at worst a legal separation, and that reconciliation is possible. What we need is a phalanx of writers willing to study the elements of poetry, develop their craft, and write significant thoughts in beautiful language while keeping the general public in mind.
That's what I'm trying to do in my own poetry, and it's what I'm trying to teach others to do at writers' conferences. I've found that people respond well to readings of good-quality poetry aimed at a general audience. And who can read or hear a good poem without thinking, "I'd like to do that"? We won't make a lot of money with our poetry, but creating beautiful and inspiring things is its own reward. And well-written poems will endure and continue to teach and inspire long after our transient commercial prose is forgotten.
My next blogs (third Friday of each month) will describe and illustrate basic poetic techniques. Writing this kind of poetry and improving our craft is something we grow into gradually. Actually, it is an imaginative journey that never ends. But each journey begins with a single step. And as a former president once said, "Let us begin."