When I am preparing to announce that I am a poet or have written a new poem or am reading a poem, I find myself searching for a way to say it without employing the words “poet”, poetry” or “poem”, because I know it will deter most people from reading or listening or giving the announcement any respect or even interest. Underneath it all, when I go public with it I feel defensive; I am embarrassed for my art. I find myself wondering if this has to be so.
The poet has through history often occupied a place of incredible power, as witness Celtic clans that, having to choose between fighting the rival clan’s poet or best warrior, would chose to fight the warrior, as there was more chance of victory against the sword than the words; hence the expression, the pen is mightier than the sword.
How we have fallen! In this age, if you say there will be a poetry reading, you invite yawns from most of the population, or if you say you are a poet, you are deemed a subject of bemusement; if it is announced you are going to read a poem, people start studiously texting on their touch-phones. The current vocabulary for referring to poetry include “slam”, “rap” and “open mike”. Poetry is still powerful for select (and huge) segments of the population when it is a lyric expressed with music (Leonard Cohen’s “Alleluia” for example) or the aforementioned “rap” or “hip-hop” or “blues” or “rock” or “reggae”, even as an advertising slogan—you name it.
But what of the power of the words themselves, the pure poetry in its most developed form? Much of the decline of that form of expression we can lay at the feet of the curriculum and the administrative decisions in which the syllabus is nested. For years in Canada—and the same may be true of most other countries during the twentieth century—the curriculum, strongly influenced by the major wars, was vested in eighteenth and nineteenth century romantics and their imitators, who were obsessed with the viewpoint of the upper classes. Most living Canadian writers were ignored in all levels of education. Not until late mid-century did a Canadian university even offer a Can Lit course. In the primary and secondary schools, poetry was taught, for the most part, by teachers who had no knowledge of it, nor respect for it; or if they had “respect” for “poetry”, it was a misplaced reverence for what was quite often crap. Most people’s exposure to “poetry” after the school years came through music, where the music dominated and the lyrics were often unintelligible, or the tripe on greeting cards, or the worse crap in newspaper “Memoriams”, which rank with the work lampooned so hilariously in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. No wonder people at large have so little respect for actual poetry, where the words have power.
Of course, during that period, there was wonderful poetry on school curricula; but it was immersed in a culture of silliness that focused on vaguely comprehended core concepts. Here is an example: all though my school career, teachers in elementary school, high school and university spoke rapturously of “imagery”, but no one ever explained what that word meant, how imagery operated, or how it made poetry. Of course, we learned to recognize similes, metaphors, even symbols in poetry; but it was not until I found myself teaching high school English that I finally figured it out for myself what imagery is and how it operates in poetry and other forms. How so central a concept could exist so vaguely through the whole educational system is a symptom of the malaise surrounding the study and teaching of poetry, and is one of the critical reasons for its decline as a powerful form of expression and cultural influence.
Another aspect of the decline in the worth of poetry is the ascendancy of the “study” of grammar and the concurrent decline of the study of rhetoric. Grammar is simply and excuse for “correct usage”; whereas, rhetoric is the study (well understood by Shakespeare and Churchill and J. F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King among others) of the power of the arrangement and repetition of ideas in a sentence or a paragraph or an essay or a poem or a play or a speech or a debate or an argument or propaganda or even advertising. Rhetoric is essential to the language of statesmanship, commerce, drama and poetry; grammar is the crutch of the illiterate and those emerging from illiteracy. Rappers and poetry slammers have perhaps unconsciously hit upon techniques of rhetoric, which occurs naturally in the formulaic repetitions that the improvisational roots of both forms present, just as the ancient shamanistic traditions were based on formulaic repetitions and expressions.
The current popular disregard for written and spoken poetry (not improvised) is my motive for asking this question: Can the words poetry, poem and poet claim popular respect in our society?
[Probably to be continued. Your comments welcomed. If you would like to post an article in support or refutation of these ideas, please do so in a comment; or register as a user so I can set you up as a poster, and you can post your own ideas here. Another way to place your article here is to post it elsewhere, then post a link to it in a comment to this article.]
From the late Canadian Poet Al Purdy on the subject:
IF you scroll down the page in this link, you can read the poem.