Trends in Poetry

  • Posted on: 13 March 2014
  • By: Jay Oyster

Revolution through poetry, or constant revolutions within poetryI have historically been a voracious reader, particularly of novels. But as I've reached my late 40s with young children in the house, I've found that I have little time, or more importantly, mental bandwidth, to read much. What I do read is usually in a very narrow bandwidth of trusted authors and easy-to-digest styles. Until he died, I read Robert Parker's mystery novels. Until the series ended, I read JK Rowling's Harry Potter books. The last trusted source I have right now is LE Modesitt's fantasy fiction. I read it because, a) it's escapist, but b) it's also grown-up fiction. It's fantasy with the concerns and knowledge of a person who has dealt with real world power struggles and real-world politics. I've taken lessons from many of his books on how to operate in a modern corporation, and how to interpret what's actually going on in the divisive politics of 21st century America. 

I also occasionally stop by Mr. Modesitt's own personal blog from time to time to see if he's published a take on current events. His is certainly not the only voice I read about such things, but it's a known voice and I often agree with his thinking. Or it makes me think a bit differently about it.  Recently, he wrote about a dance recital that he and his wife attended, and at which he was given a poetry magazine. His take on both the dance and the poetry is that both forms have gotten looser over the past 50 years, and it hasn't been good for either. I don't disagree.

This started me thinking.

It was bound to do so, since I spent so much of my own educational time on poetry for some reason. Although my undergraduate degree is in Physics, my *other* undergraduate degree is in English Literature. And in the early 2000s, I even audited several ( . . erm, , , many?) courses in English Lit at the Saint Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida.  I was a working technical writer who longed for my college days, but I also have a creative streak that was not being fulfilled in my job. So I took classes to read, for instance 18th century literature by women, or courses in modern poetry.  These things taught me a lot. First, it taught me that being a student at 35 is much different, and I'd say much better, than being a studend at 20. And it taught me that I enjoy reading poetry and thinking and writing about literary topics. Mr. Modesitt's blog made me want to revisit some of those topics. In particular, is modern, free verse really of as good quality of any of the classic forms of the past?   Here was my response to his blog post:

A very interesting can of worms you’ve opened there, Mr. Modesitt. I’ve often wondered about these trends in poetry. I’m probably a bit unusual in your fanbase in that I’m both a technologist and an English Lit major. Several years ago, I even took what could be described as an audit courseload of an English graduate degree. Voluntarily. Yes, my wife thinks I’m nuts, too. But this kind of stuff interests me. So, I’ve been thinking about these trends for a while. I have too many thoughts in my head to put it down here, I’ll probably write something on my own blog just to clear it out. But here, I wanted to add a couple of thoughts:

Dance, painting, poetry, classical music . . . all of the classic high art forms have followed about the same trajectory over the past two centuries. In the early 19th century, they all reach the high Romantic period. Lush. Highly structured. Dense. Emotional. Nature-obsessed. Rachmaninoff. Wordsworth. Keats. The Hudson Valley school. But the speed of change accelerated, right along with the industrial revolution. And the artists are ambitious. Profoundly ambitious. The goal for the great artists for the past two centuries has changed. Previously, it was to produce a masterwork of your profession, to demonstrate within the constrictions of the guild the utmost skill possible. But this is evolutionary excellence. Everything the past two centuries has been about innovation and revolution.

So you have artists, as everyone else in culture has done, seeking to ‘reinvent’ the form. Romanticism led to Impressionism in art and music. And the poets; they too wanted to reinvent the form. It started slowly, with Whitman and Yeats playing with free-er forms. Frost did it with tone. And then there were those who were so good at formal poetry they could break it completely and do something new and vibrant . . ee cummings. Wallace Stevens. (I’m not a fan of TS Eliot.) But I think what the 20th century poets didn’t completely understand was that to write fine poetry without structure is actually much, MUCH harder. I’d liken it to baking a cake without cake pans. Only the true masters can figure out how to do it and end up with something valuable and appealing. Randall Jarrell and Robert Lowell occasionally succeeded. Very few others did.

The truly sad part about 20th century poetry, though, is that the new voices that also rose up at the same time, the poetry of feminism, of African Americans, orf the gay community, unfortunately got caught up in the free verse trend of the time. I suspect that the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Gwendolyn Brooks would have been orders of magnitude more powerful if they had been writing in the early 19th century and had been allowed to publish poetry with the same message. Allan Ginsburg's would have been exactly the same.

A couple of additional thoughts on the matter. . . I am not up on the very latest trends in poetry. I really haven't paid much attention to it for about eight years now. This is mostly because between about 1980 when I first became aware of modern poetry, and about 2004 when I took my last college course in the topic,  nothing had really changed. The poetry had simply continued to be free form, self-indulgent, and pretty much effect-less. Perhaps this is the lesson of these trends in all of these art forms, with the rise of the produced film, televion programs and book industries, which have taken the role that these art forms previously occupied, they have moved on to the personal and private. Since the audiences for fixed messages and fixed narratives have gone "up there", to the networks, to the movie screens, to the iTunes store, poetry and classical music and dance have all lost their audiences. That and the desire to constantly 'reinvent the form' has led them all into a kind of structure-free wasteland. But since the commercial aspects of the media had been removed previously, they now have the luxury to become precious and self-involved. And lazy. Free-form is lazy. What poetry I have written has been attempted in a variety of forms, from free verse to highly structured sonnets and such. But the stuff I'm proudest of, and on which I have spent the most mental energy, were those in a more classical form. Maybe I'll try to hunt down my old notebooks and publish a couple of them here on my site. Hell, why else have I got this damned thing anyway?

I find it quite telling that the most quoted poems today . . . on those rare occasions when poetry is ever even quoted by the public at large, are Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken", effectively a four stanza quatrain with a double length fourth line in each stanza, and Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night", a sestina for Christ's sake, one of the most rigidly structured poetic forms ever invented, and which is so rarely done well in English due to the language's lack of the end rhymes that are so common in the Romance languages. Culturally, we value highly structured poems. Mostly we ignore the structureless stuff. I would argue that it is not the ultimate goal of poetry to be easily ignored and ineffective.

And a poetry slam is not poetry, it is improvisational theater.

There. That's all I have to say about that.