"One reader is a miracle; two, a mass movement." – Walter Lowenfels
Nobody Reads Poetry?
More to the point, how can we judge something as dead if we've never seen it alive?
To put this in perspective, these are some things that have happened in our culture (in blue) or are happening in other cultures (in purple). Imagine:
- making $129,781,016.55¹ for one poem (as Robert Service did);
- turning down (before ultimately accepting) an offer of $109,000¹ for the rights to two poems (as Lord Byron did);
- topping the book sales charts for the 20th century (as Robert Service and "Dr. Seuss" did, along with Agatha Christie);
- routinely filling Carnegie Hall;
- appearing in syndicated poetry columns in every significant newspaper and magazine (ending with Edgar Guest, 1881-1959);
- people knowing and quoting living poets;
- people being able to recite poems written during their lifetime;
- bards traveling from town to town like rock bands;
- poets as sex symbols;
- a soldier writing the best known poem of that century in a letter home;
- poets inspiring scientific discovery;
- poets performing at ceremonies, including presidential inaugurations, without embarrassing themselves and the art form;
- trivia questions expecting you to finish lines of contemporary verse;
- impromptu recitation contests at your local pub.
If poetry were alive one of the next five strangers you meet would be able to recite a recently written poem along with you.
Spoiler alert: You will win a lottery before that happens.
|Earl the Squirrel's Rule #50|
Why Does It Matter?
A friend who should have known better asked me: "Why does it matter that contemporary poetry's audience has disappeared?"
Sputter. Gack! Jesus.
Ahem. This is a cruel question to ask someone trying to reduce their use of hyperbole.
We are talking about one of the most overlooked extinctions in human history. The French dropped a verb tense, the past perfect, from their spoken language, relegating it to the mists of anachronism. Not to be outdone, we English managed to misplace an entire mode of speech! Of which we have only two. What is more, we accomplished this feat in less than a century and without anyone noticing! In 1920 Grade 6 graduates knew more about poetry than most PhD students² today. We've gone from average people reciting verse at length to a time when few can cough up a single line of poetry written in their lifetime.
That's what has to happen to poetry.
The good news is that it only has to happen once. Until then, for all we know, there may be a Homer, a Shakespeare or a Maz being ignored, as all contemporary poets are.
¹ - All figures converted to 2014 currency for convenience.
² - "The anti-Shakespeare crew tends to have a dollop
of class snobbery, and doesn't understand that a graduate
of a quality 'grammar school' in the late 16th century
had a far more thorough schooling in the classics than
today's undergraduate classics major."
- Michael Juster ("Who Wrote Shakespeare?", Eratosphere, 2014-05-03)
1. "Poets? Conservative?"
2. "Poets? Liberal?"
3. If Poetry Were Alive