Does poetry still matter in our Twitter society? Such was the question that caught my eye during a somewhat random Google session the other day. The answers consisted of some lugubrious comments to the effect that poetry, like the novel, is dying, if not dead.
Of course it is hard to believe that poets were once considered celebrities, and that poetry was once a pre-eminent form of entertainment, as these days poetry is usually considered the property and province of the cultural elite. We also generally refrain from mentioning poetry and politics in the same breath.
'Twas not always thus. In 1821 the novelist and poet Thomas Love Peacock published an essay called 'The Four Ages of Poetry'. Poetry, he wrote, started in the Age of Iron and reached its peak in the Age of Gold, after which it went downhill through the Ages of Silver and Brass. (Today he might maunder on about an Age of Plastic.)
Peacock, a Utilitarian, was particularly hard on the Romantics, even though his close friend Shelley was prominent among them. Shelley hit back with 'A Defence of Poetry', in which he declared that 'poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds'. Well, he would say that. But Shelley also famously opined that 'poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world'.
Fast forward 30 years. In 1851 poet Matthew Arnold, often considered 'the forgotten Victorian', was on his honeymoon near a beach in Dover. There he began to write his famous eponymous poem, although it was not published until many years later.
Arnold is not considered to have had the mighty gifts of Tennyson or Browning, but it is also thought that he was closer to the modern mind than either of those giants. And he could apparently see the way the world was heading.
On the Origin of Species, Darwin's faith-shattering work, was not published until 1859, but in 1855 Arnold published a long poem called 'Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse', composed during his visit to the French Carthusian monastery some years earlier. In the poem he sees himself as 'wandering between two worlds — one dead / The other powerless to be born'.
Arnold was mightily concerned about what became the issue of the age: that of the conflict between religion and science, and this is the main concern expressed in 'Dover Beach'. Arnold describes the beauty of the shore at night, but also makes the reader aware of the waves' 'eternal note of sadness', which had reminded Sophocles of the 'turbid ebb and flow of human misery'. Now, Arnold fears, the Sea of Faith is retreating, in a 'melancholy, long, withdrawing roar'.
"In the world, which may seem to the young like a land of dreams, there is no certitude, no peace, nor help for pain."
American critics of long ago accurately described Arnold as engaging in 'a dignified and mournful questioning of Providence, attended by a calm and steady resignation to the inevitable'. I doubt Arnold would have seen himself as one of Shelley's legislators, but there is no doubt of his lasting influence: he was the first Oxford professor of poetry to deliver his lectures in English rather than in Latin, and he was a conscientious and intelligent inspector of schools for 35 years. As well, his stature as a critic and writer of prose such as Culture and Anarchy soon surpassed his reputation as a poet.
Yet Arnold's most famous poems are still very relevant, and accessible to a great many people. Society today, I think, is definitely wandering between two worlds. The world of old-style work and jobs for life, for example, has almost disappeared. A new world, and not necessarily a better or braver one, will involve increasing automation, to the point at which some scientists predict that human beings could possibly become redundant, and eventually be replaced altogether by robots and their ilk.
Even if this fearsome prospect does not eventuate, it is, alas, unlikely that Arnold's vision, captured with such bleakness in 'Dover Beach', will change. In the world, which may seem to the young like a land of dreams, there is no certitude, no peace, nor help for pain. 'And we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight / Where ignorant armies clash by night.'
And people who seldom or never read poetry can still respond to Arnold's plea: 'Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!' Love and loyalty, surely, are our weapons against the armies.
Gillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.
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19 May 2017
Could I live without poetry? Yes, but it wouldn't be much of an existence. In "The Instrument" Les Murray wrote: "Poetry is read by the lovers of poetry/and heard by some more they coax to the café/or the district library for a bifocal reading./Lovers of poetry may total a million people/on the whole planet. Fewer than the players of skat." The whole poem is a gem and what can beat that, thanks Gillian.
21 May 2017
In some non-English speaking societies, such as Iran and India, many people know their national epics by heart. R K Narayan wrote about recitations of the Ramayana in village India. With the rise of television this national epic was translated to the small screen. To us, always in a hurry, this production may seem a bit slow but it's beautiful. It's similar in regard temples in India which are centres of village life. Those at great pilgrimage centres are alive in a way you rarely see in the West. The Reformation and the Industrial Revolution cut English speaking culture off from its more earthy cultural roots. It is something we live with. Technology is further cutting us off from the deep emotional life which breeds the poetic vision and allows it to flourish. We do have, and always have had, superb poets and novelists with poetic vision, like Tim Winton, in this country. I wonder if the current style of teaching literature in schools is putting people off poetry? I think it probably is. Poetry is not a 'text' to be 'deciphered' but something to nurture the soul. Modern Australian society is, in many ways, a soul-shrinking one.
22 May 2017
to blame our culture, Edward, for the loss of this or that is perhaps an abdication of personal responsibility. Poetry like faith is conceived in the soul and given birth in the heart, and each of us can bring it to life in ourselves and each other by listening attentively to the sounds of beauty.
22 May 2017
Thanks, Gillian for reminding us how often poets see dimly what later becomes much clearer. Your comments on Arnold's Dover Beach remind us just how quickly only 20 years earlier Tennyson's "whole world bound by golden chains about the feet of God" was already vanishing.
22 May 2017
In some other cultures poetry is still spoken and poets valued as part of normal life. I have heard this in my multi-cultural neighbourhood, and have known people to write a poem for someone as a gift.
There is a movement reclaiming poetry as a public event, mainly -but not only-attended by younger people. This gives me (a shy private poet) hope for the future. It holds hope for poetry as a dynamic and evolving living form rather than as only a preservation of past wisdom.
22 May 2017
If poetry is in decline, surely the education system and contemporary poets themselves have to bear some of the responsibility?
22 May 2017
Gillian I loved reading your piece. The world really does need poetry in this time where so many search in vain for meaning. Poetry will not die but simply morph into forms that make it accessible to the masses. Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, U2 and Radiohead point the way to the survival of poetry. Poets and musicians need to sit down in pubs together because a generation or two could benefit from their collaboration.
22 May 2017
Arnold's "Dover Beach" is perhaps a good illustration of the difference between poetry and what passes as poetry in some quarters today. His use of the sea carrying away the moment in the waves of the retreating tide, is a great description of the power of science at that time washing away the long established tenets of Judeo-Christianity. The imagery expressed the societal changes in so few words without critical analysis that everyone could understand and even remember and quote. That is true poetry, unlike today's disguised prose that no-one remembers and dies in human memory soon after it is written. Arnold's poetry was contemporary, its social comment accurate and yet it was truly poetic. It is not surprising when one considers the signal place his family and in-laws played in the conflict of science with established society. His brother ( a Prof of Literature) produced two literary daughters, the novelist Mrs Humphrey Ward and Julia , an Oxford graduate in Literature, who joined her family to the famous Huxleys when she married Leonard, a writer, scientist (botanist} and schoolmaster. Leonard's father, Thomas, was a major contributor to Darwin's evolutionary theory which threatened Christian belief in the origins of human life. Julia's son, Aldous, in 1932 wrote the famous "Brave New World" which described a fictional scientific world in 2540 AD London where Christianity was no more and Science was the new God. Matthew Arnold in "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" may well have been Aldous' inspiration when he wrote, "wandering between two worlds- one dead/ the other powerless to be born". Poetry inspires. "Fake poetry", typical of so much in the world of Twitter, is eminently forgettable and fails to inspire, yet is the celebrity of our age. Pity! Oh for another Hopkins or Thompson!
22 May 2017
The poetic sensibility - to arrange words in such a conjunction that meaning is somehow multiplied and/or spotlighted - or reaches into one's heart with personal resonance - or else illuminates with insight aspects of life in general... your essay Gillian and all the comments already added here say truly important things about poetry. Just this evening I watched ABC TV "Australia Story" about the contemporary Australian poet/writer Luke DAVIES. His book Candy some will know - a wasted younger period of life its basis - but it was a recent triumph which drew my attention. He wrote the film script for the movie "Lion" based on the life of Saru BRIERLEY of Hobart - who as a little boy became lost - in his native India - on trains - eventually ending up in Calcutta - then adopted to Hobart. But you all know the story. Acted in his adult phase by the British actor Dev PATEL - who spoke of chasing the role - smitten by the lyrical writing of the script - the poetry of Luke DAVIES - winning the role - and achieving the best Aussie English accent I have ever heard from a non-Aussie!
23 May 2017
As a person who writes poetry and teaches poetry among other things I can testify that poetry is not dead, nor dying in the age of Twitter. I have read and heard similar arguments about poetry's life force for the past thirty years. The need to read and write poetry remains among many people, old and young, the form of it changes, as do forces in society. Twitter is hardly the measure for the health of poetry, and while Matthew Arnold had some relevance years ago, try looking at a range of contemporary or near contemporary poets from around the world- Charles Wright, Judith Beveridge, Robert Hass, Sarah Holland Batt among many others. Have a look at ABR's States of Poetry anthology published throughout the year with poems from each state around Australia. Have a look at Slam poetry videos on the internet, go to Collected Works bookshop in Melbourne and buy a book from Australia's only poetry book store. The state of poetry appreciation might be healthier than you think.
25 May 2017
I think that the answer to the continuing relevance of poetry was underlined by the moving response 'This is the Place' by the poet Tony Walsh to the horrifying attack in Manchester.
28 May 2017
There IS always a place for poetry - if you doubt it view THIS response to Manchester bombings from Poet Tony Walsh https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/25/tony-walsh-poem-vigil-manchester-bombing