Two hundred years ago, poetry dominated western society as the premier art form. People like William Wordsworth and Lord Byron had a devoted readership of millions during and after their lifetimes. Words made sense of the surrounding world and its beauty as well as the often-elusive human soul.
Yet today, poetry occupies the outermost circles of our waning cultural focus.
The evidence lies at your fingertips. Do a comparative search between Kim Kardashian and William Wordsworth on Google Trends. You’ll see Kardashian’s graph gradually rise over time like an economist’s fantasy. Wordsworth’s, however, remains a flat line hugging the lowest part of the y-axis.
No “bright young things” in today’s world of poetry have captivated a mass audience. We think of poetry as a dry, snobby way to whine about our feelings; inaccessible words reserved for dust-covered academic types.
Somewhere along the way, people lost their way. The bliss and illumination that can come from reading a poem became obscured by flashing lights and big movie screens.
The trend began with the advent of the consumer culture. Sometime after the Industrial Revolution, a middle class was born—and this middle class really liked having things. Owning the latest technologies and amenities, once a luxury, became an addiction for many as the twentieth century progressed. Mile-long lines of people sleep overnight on stores’ sidewalks in hopes to acquire one of the first copies of a video game or a brand-new television. And the only way to have nice, new things is to have money.
Writing poetry won’t really earn anyone a comfortable living. Wouldn’t you feel fine spending every day in an office cubicle if it meant you could live the suburban dream?
American society measures the worth of others by the extent of their worldly possessions, not by the content of their souls. In poetry, the soul is everything. The loss of such an artistic rendering of the soul can prove fatal for our own.
Yet poetry’s downfall may not have been due to strictly economic factors. Motion pictures rose in prominence during the first half of the 1900s. Not only a visual representation of plotlines, movies also require little to no effort to comprehend. A person burns fewer calories watching a movie than he or she does while sleeping. Not many activities can boast that feat.
Unless it’s a dense, art-house movie meant to be viewed several times, everything is in plain view with film. It’s easy to see how easily poetry, often full of elusive and obscured meanings beneath distilled words, faded away in comparison to something that often takes little effort to enjoy.
Ultimately, poetry’s return to a more accepted, revered place in the mass consciousness will take decades if not centuries. A fundamental, not structural change, must occur—for poetry to come back, people must want it to come back. The common psyche of this culture must realize it needs art such as poetry to survive.
— Samantha Berkhead