When you think of poetry, do you think of pretension, political statements, or bombastic lyrics? When was the last time you read poetry without it being a requirement for a class?
Do these rhetorical questions perhaps remind you of a contemporary form of poetry?
Martha Nasch, a housewife from St. Paul, Minnesota, wrote these words while confined to a mental hospital in the 1920s:
“…I am judged as an idiot and a crackpot,
And rated far less than a mule
Behind thick walls, where Satan calls now,
I play the madman of the asylum.
For seven years, poetry served as Nasch’s escape from hospital walls and a window to the real world. Today, his granddaughter and great-granddaughter have compiled all of his poems into a book called “Poems from the Asylum”, including a story where Nasch is held against his will.
Nasch’s poetry is enough to remind us that words are truly the only legacy that can endure through the damage of space and time. The escape his words gave him is now able to give his readers insight into different worlds. If mere words can provide this living escape, then why is poetry dying?
Even though general readership of poetry itself is on the rise – according to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the number of adults reading poetry between 2012 and 2017 increased by 76% – there is a sense of niche poetry culture that isolates the general public from the art since much of its popularity is focused on younger generations who view poetry in its contemporary forms.
Poetry has power because of its ability to make big statements in the smallest number of words. It can help express ideas that many of us may not have the ability to fully express. The simple schematic arrangement of the words also has power in the comfort it provides to its readers. The power of poetry has overthrown governments with its revolutionary ideas, and Amanda Gorman’s performance of poetry at the inauguration of President Joe Biden has created a sense of unity after the long and tumultuous first weeks of 2021.
For centuries, poetry has been an expression of love, of regret, of anger, of celebration – even natural imagery is celebrated by the most lucid descriptions in rhyme. This medium can express anything and everything, but its dwindling popularity suggests either the world’s poets are doing something wrong, or readers aren’t being exposed to the variety of works in the world. As poetry searches become more cyclical, students seeking resources for their courses are often those interested in researching poetic works rather than individuals who would read poems independently.
This general hesitation towards poetry can be attributed to the way it is taught in schools. Most language course programs focus on the poetic devices, techniques, and other linguistic intricacies behind creating different types of poems. Students learn sonnets, villanelles, found poems, haikus, meters, ballads and more. For example, students learning sonnets written in Older English focus on the rhyme schemes, syllables, meter, and devices used in the poem instead of how and why the author used certain words to respond. at certain occurrences. As haikus become defined by 17 syllables and found poems become methodical searches for complex words, students end up tediously categorizing literary works. They may then end up developing a sense of resentment towards poetry and later associate it with analytical work and time-consuming instead of the escapism and relatability that poetry offers. By focusing on the rhetorical aspects of poetry, the original emotional impact intended by the authors is often lost.
UCI professor Rebecca Schultz, who teaches English 16: The Craft of Poetry, expresses similar sentiments regarding her approach to teaching poetry. She strives to help her students “experiment with the poem” and even makes sure the experience is fun by choosing “lively” poems, comparing Shakespeare’s sonnets to contemporary sonnets on the pub crawl. Calling it “Shakespeare’s trauma,” or the fear of studying older, complex poetry because of the difficulty it presents to high school students, she acknowledges students’ diverse past experiences with the study of poetry. . As a result, Schultz makes sure to move away from analyzing specific literary devices so as not to trigger past fears of rote or memorization-based learning, and students can instead focus on immersing themselves in the author’s perspective.
Schultz’s approach chooses to help students understand how the poems are rooted in the world and universal experiences. In examining how a dwindling number of people are interested in poetry, Schultz also expressed concerns about the Common Core Curriculum taught in American K-12 schools. She argues that there is an unseen pressure on teachers to focus on teaching for tests that take students away from learning the power of poetry and understanding the inherent desire to respond to world’s problems with language. Instead, students’ curriculum often replaces the immersive, sensory experience of literature with the robotic memorization of poetic devices.
Drawing on her experience working in publishing, Schultz also mentioned that the promotion and publication of new poets tends to be much more market driven. Since stories tend to be “easier to grasp”, poetry often cannot provide the same form of entertainment that is expected from prose found in books and narratives. The lack of access to classical poetry with the change in the educational system has also led to a decrease in enthusiasm for the attention to language that poetry itself demands. Since poetry isn’t always targeted at a specific age group or demographic, the newer forms that seem to appeal to readers are those that focus on relatability for all reading groups. According to Schultz, creating a “real” poem means “using language to capture an experience that communicates specificity to the reader – something true yet unspeakable”.
The social aspect of poetry has also lost popularity. With the rise of “BookTok” and “BookTube”, communities on the TikTok and YouTube platforms dedicated to literary discussions, contemporary writers have gained immense recognition, encouraging younger generations to become more interested in different genres of fiction. . The lack of analysis and interpretation necessary to understand prose helps it to advance in the literary race, while poetry is left behind. While fiction and its genre companions, such as self-help and essay collections, gain steady promotion, poetry tends to be seen as a hard work form. Poetry is often considered unappealing to the general population of readers, with only poetry collections published by celebrities tending to gain space for review and criticism.
While the seemingly waning interest in poetry may imply that it’s an acquired taste, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The beauty of poetry comes from the fact that it does not need to be understood. This leaves open spaces for interpretation and application to ourselves.
When Joy Harjo, the current National Poet Laureate, wrote:
“Everyone has a heartache –
This silence in the noise of the terminal is a mountain of bison
Nobody knows, nobody sees— ”
Harjo doesn’t just tell his own story; it tells a universal story of suffocating loneliness in crowds. Every poet may simply write what he feels, but in doing so he also expresses what the world feels. Reading more poetry doesn’t exist because it seems fanciful to quote obscure writers in everyday conversation; it exists because it allows us to find relatability.
And in times of confusion, everyone can find words to cling to:
“… To those I once knew
On Earth, wide and blue,
I will send them my thoughts in a poem.
Nandini Sharma is an opinion writer. She can be reached at [email protected].