Poetry is dead. Christopher Ingraham notes in an article from The Washington Post: “According to the latest numbers, poetry is less popular than jazz. It’s less popular than dance, and only about half as popular as knitting. The only major arts category with a narrower audience than poetry is opera…” Ouch.
People have been writing about the death of poetry for at least a hundred years, which would suggest that it is, indeed, very much alive. What is in the ICU, drawing long rattling breaths like John Keats in Rome, is the buying and selling of poetry collections.
Fifty Shades of Grey has sold over one hundred million copies, but a living poet is considered a raging success if he or she sells 300. That is not a typo. Three hundred copies.
Are you okay with that? Because I would like to gently suggest that this statistic indicates we are in need of a wee attitude adjustment.
We are programmed, and programmed hard, to think of poetry as rarified frippery with no relevance to real life, as something you need specialist’s training to understand or as a nauseatingly narcissistic form of public psychotherapy.
That isn’t true—at least not across the board. As with all art forms, your mileage may vary, and one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. But if you dwell on this planet in a human body, there is a poet or two out there for you to love.
Poets hail from the Academy and the streets, from across the country and around the globe, from every demographic niche imaginable. The only trait poets truly share is a passion for words.
If you’re a voracious reader, there is definitely a place in your life for poetry. If you read little? Guess what? Poets say what they need to say in far fewer words than novelists. Or, for that matter, your boss at those Tuesday staff meetings.
So rather than holding poetry’s wake, I’m issuing a wake-up call.
We should be buying, and reading, more poetry. Why?
Because, once in a while, someone will express something you’ve always felt but could never put your finger on. They will say it in a way that it so beautiful to you that, for a few minutes, the entire biochemistry of your body undergoes a subtle but powerful change. You’ll experience joy.
Because well-arranged words can make us desperately uncomfortable and thus unable to stand by and let something suck. Poems are often born from deep psychic pain. People who are gifted in expressing that kind of pain can inspire us to correct the situations that are causing it.
Because truth. Because beauty. Because sex and drugs and rock and roll, science and sculpture, music and motorcycles, profound transformations and stuff that is just plain hilarious all have voices in poetry.
Because poems give us the ability to view history, politics, artwork, feelings, people in new ways. Reading poetry cultivates symbolic or metaphorical sight. If you don’t know why that is important, turn on the news. You will be deluged with stories about atrocities perpetrated by fundamentalists. There are legions of them, and they come from everywhere in the world with every imaginable platform. But one thing fundamentalists have in common is the complete inability to internalize metaphor, symbol, parable or the fact that truths are both universal and infinitely varied. They can only see things in one way.
This disability can make people exceedingly dangerous.
Cultivating the skill to appreciate multiple viewpoints, in other words, might just be part of what saves us. Glance at the headlines; something has to. Wallace Stevens famously quipped, “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for want of what is found there.”
I am openly exhorting you, readers, to get up and buy at least one book of poetry. Today, this week, next time you’re trawling Amazon or hanging out in your local bookstore—just do it. And read it. If you don’t like it, give it to someone else. And if you really want to be an advocate for this ever-dying, never-dead, terribly important art form, buy a book from an author who is alive. Yes, read Shakespeare and Dickinson and Keats and Eliot. But living poets need you. Like Tinkerbell, our little lights get extinguished when no one believes in us any more.
So yes, buy Rumi and Milton and Hopkins. But also consider some of the incredibly fascinating people who are forging great work right this minute. You might not realize how enormous a gift this is to the total stranger who wrote the book, but believe me, it is. Don’t know where to start? Here’s someone’s opinion. Or hey, I have opinions, ask me.
But in the end, the opinion that matters is yours. Consider formulating one. Imagine if we lived in a world that valued this craft, this language of the heart, this kaleidoscope in which shattered glass becomes a rose window (or vice versa!). What if the world valued poetry as much as it apparently values what the Kardashians are wearing?
Poetry is not dead. Go prove it.
Amy Glynn is an award-winning poet and essayist who would not be at all put out if you bought her book, A Modern Herbal. It’s brim-full of the sex and drugs as well as that grief and loss crap.
If you want suggestions for other poets you might want to try, hit her up in the comments. Amy is also a jazz singer and a food and wine bon vivant who can be found on Twitter.