Why Poetry is So Bad

By: 
Al Jacobs

The subject I intend to discuss is the current vogue in poetry … or more specifically, what appears to constitute excellence in the contemporary poetic world. Although the poetry I normally choose to draft incorporates perfect meter, perfect rhyme and perfect intelligibility, my tolerances are nonetheless broad.

I appreciate all styles: rhyming/metrical, free verse and classic – but it must be well-crafted and thought-provoking. I don’t favor pornography, or works that consist of pointless flows of words with no apparent significance.

During the roughly ten years I functioned as a literary editor, a lot of poetry passed my way and from all sorts of persons in every profession: housewives, retirees in their eighties and beyond, day laborers, students at all grade levels, holders of MFA degrees, inmates of penal institutions, professors of English in prestigious universities and semi-literates of all sorts.

Although I never attempted to categorize poetry by its source, a pattern soon developed that couldn’t be ignored. Poetry from most of the groups could be classed anywhere from excellent to abysmal, based presumably on the talent of its author.

But from one source – those persons with extensive training or tenure in university literature departments – the material evidenced a single quality: all of it essentially uniform … and uniformly mediocre. It’s this phenomenon I want to address.

For reasons that are somewhat obscure, poetic standards began to deteriorate in the early 20th century and by the 1950s the citadels of literary authority enthusiastically embraced the relaxed conventions. Today’s final product is easily described: rhyme and meter replaced with free verse; successive words and phrases customarily unrelated; and intelligibility appearing to serve no particular purpose. Any verse that deviates from this pattern is now castigated as inferior – or worse: old fashioned.

I’m convinced that if Longfellow, Poe, or Holmes were to magically reappear and submit their finest poems to any of today’s leading publications, not a one would be accepted. Is it any wonder modern poetry is no longer significant to anyone not a part of the literary establishment?

Let me offer a possible reason as to why the once majestic highland of poetry devolved into a swampland of drivel. You may credit it to the universal adage: Follow the money.

If the educational institutions of the century just past excelled at anything, attracting the dollar stood in number one position. The most effective means in this endeavor consists of increasing student body enrollment, with each academic department encouraged to stuff more bodies into ever more classrooms. Devices such as vacuous courses, grade inflation and the granting of meaningless degrees became an art.

And no department lent itself more ideally to this charade than Humanities. Some may argue that democratization of education eventually benefits the greatest number of people and therefore deserves to be preserved. A claim can even be made that society is better served when institutions of higher learning are as available to those with mental limitations as to the intellectually able.

Well enough, perhaps, but this is where a fundamental problem arises. Although large numbers of the general public can be taught to write a simple declarative sentence or conjugate a verb, relatively few persons possess the inherent talent to compose first-rate poetry.

To use a musical analogy, for every Georges Bizet capable of crafting superb music will be a thousand John Cages who merely generate noise … though in one composition, Cage introduced – thankfully – 4 minutes and 33 seconds of dead silence.

So it is with the written word. Most would-be practitioners of the literary art must, by statistical necessity, be inept. Therein lies the dilemma … and also the solution. If the entire poetic domain can be reconstituted so that verse produced by any high school sophomore is indistinguishable from that of a poet laureate, the predicament is resolved.

Thousands of functional illiterates are now eligible to be enrolled in and graduated from the nation’s universities with literary degrees. And no one can point an accusing finger to identify an unfit poet, as might be possible with an unworthy holder of a physics or mathematics credential.

Perhaps you doubt the verse of a poet laureate could possibly be mistaken for that of a high school sophomore. The following lines were written by Tracy K. Smith, holder of an M.F.A. from Columbia University in 1997, a Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University and, from 2017 to 2019, the U.S. Poet Laureate.

I love you in the rusted iron
Chains someone was made
To drag until love let them be
Unclasped and left empty
In the center of the ring.

I love you in the water
Where they pretended to wade,
Singing that old blood-deep song
That dragged us to those banks
And cast us in.

 

You may be the judge as to whether that could have been written by any high school sophomore … or freshman, for that matter.

This is an opportunity to peek into history, to see how the post of poet laureate came into being and in what way it developed. We commonly think of the post as an honorary office bestowed by the English crown and indeed, this was its modern origin.

The post of Poet Laureate of the United States was established in 1985, with its selection to a one-year term made by the Librarian of Congress. The first designee in 1986: Robert Penn Warren, a Kentuckian, then past his eightieth year when he assumed the position. Warren subscribed to the traditional school, possessing an historical reference and a strong sense for the narrative.

With his successors, however, both rhyme and meter were less pronounced, in keeping with the trend throughout the twentieth century. Today the Smith work I selected is typical.

Not to be outdone by the federal government, most of the states also established laureates of their own. As is understandable, political considerations sometimes dictate the choice of the nominee, with backroom maneuvering often a factor.

Which brings us to California. I’ll take this opportunity to share a touch of poetic output of one of our recent laureates, so you may better appreciate the status of poetic excellence in this most populous state of the nation. Here are 11 lines from a poem entitled “Skid.”

Maybe widow-to-be watching the sun
diminish brick by brick along the jail
wall and also that green pear
on its drunken roll out
of the executioner’s lunch basket.

At 12:01, 02, in the cocked chamber
of the digital clock
the newsman said: There’ll be less
work in the new century. And my job
will be, as usual, forgetting – or getting it backwards –

 

With this, I conclude my dissertation on the type of poetry that is currently extolled and of our modern poets laureate vis-à-vis the splendor the office once exemplified.

I offer no profound observations, except to pose a single rhetorical question: If, at the beginning of this third decade of this 21st century, the quality of verse generated by the poets laureate of the nation’s most populous state are somehow indicative of the finest, can there be a better explanation as to why the bulk of what today passes for modern poetry holds no significance for anyone?

 

Al Jacobs, a professional investor for nearly a half-century, issues weekly financial articles in which he shares his financial knowledge and experience. Al may be contacted at al@abjacobs.com.

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