Skip to main content

The Failure of Interest In Poetry In Our Time

Poetry - a literary genre - cannot be said to fail, whether it be conservative (in places) or innovative. I have often wondered how intelligent poets, who espouse an interest in science and medicine, could understand science to pertain to the whole of the world (indeed, to all existence) with its laws, but still accept that "Poetry" could be one thing in, say, America, and another in Scotland, or India. Languages separate poems, even poets, but poetry is an indivisible and complex whole, a concept that contains many different possible options, perspectives, and approaches. Otherwise, how to explain Ashbery and Heaney - both significant figures - writing poems of very different kinds, and orders? Too often, criticism has sought to position various "poetics" or "poetries" at odds (official verse culture, say, or the avant-garde) - when a larger, and more positive, similarity accrued, across the globe, with relation to poetry. So, poetry has not failed in our time.

But there has been a massive falling off of interest in poetry, on the part of everyone - that is, the public at large, the average reader, even the intelligent, informed student, and so on. To deny this is impossible, I think, if one quickly reflects on what actual interest looks like. A "star" of film or music is followed by dozens of photographers, and is known to many, if not all; their products sell in the millions of units, enriching them in the process. Their work is widely enjoyed, discussed, owned, and reviewed.

This is not an ideal, but it is a definition of interest. I am avoiding the word "popularity" for any number of reasons - one of which is that mass interest even attaches to the despised, in some instances. What is sure is that no poet - not one - currently writing or alive - has raised that interest. Too often, schools of thought or taste are blamed for this downfall of recognition. Or even, teaching.

But no one is taught to love a screen star, or a song. Desire brings people freely to other artifacts of our world culture. It is true, marketing is cunningly employed to assist this process - but then again, books are also marketed - and the result is, storytellers, like Ken Follett or Pullman - become loved, or at least famous.

No, the fact is, poetry is no longer of any interest to most people. None.

I read somewhere that Daljit Nagra's amazing debut collection, from Faber, this year sold 35,000 copies. In poetry terms, that is impressive. In world terms, that is nothing.

There have never been such engaging, accessible poets (Billy Collins, Wendy Cope, Derek Mahon, Margaret Atwood) or such difficult ones (Prynne, Bernstein, Muldoon, Kinsella). Neither set outwits or erases the other - both work to enjoy, explore, and engage with, language - in terms of form and content. 21st century English-language poetry is as rich as at the time of Kipling, Yeats and Hardy.

So, the genre of poetry cannot have failed. It is no failure on the part of the poets, maybe not even their publishers and promoters.

So, what is the cause of the major lack of interest in poems?

I am afraid the answer is, it is our humanity that has failed. It is not the poems that have got smaller, but the audience - in more ways than one. Readers (and by extension I mean Western society) no longer seeks a quest, or a journey, that may be truly transformative, in art. The major effect of art was always transformation - metamorphosis. It might render one immortal, or blind, or wise. Today's readers seek comfort, conformity, and assurance. If they believe in God, they do not want to truly shaken to the core of their faith. If they are determined atheists, they do not want to thoroughly consider the possible riches that await a believer. Story is desired. Story, and escape.

Since the advertising-media complex sells Escape as its principle commodity, it cannot interest its readers in Poetry. Poetry intensifies within us precisely those parts of being which resist the world that can be bought and sold. Poetry reminds us of language as something other than that can be manipulated to deceive. Poetry - neither mere magic, or craft - is the art and science of language utterly speaking out all possible engagements with the world. its astounding diversity topples preconceptions, dogmas, and hierarchies. The greatest poem is always yet to be written.

Poetry, therefore, remains, to me, exactly exciting, in the deepest sense. But is an excitement predicated on a strong willingness to recognise the need for change - even radical change. Poetry may require a non-believer to love a god, or a god to love a man.

The fact that poetry does not interest most people suggests most people are no longer interesting. Their absorption in extremely violent parallel worlds, games, and so on, masks a declining ability to empathise with that was once called the human condition. I fear, quite seriously, that we are everyday rendered less human. Welcome to the inhuman condition of the new age.

Popular posts from this blog


According to the latest CBS, ABC, etc, polls, Clinton is still likely to beat Trump - by percentile odds of 66% to 33% and change. But the current popular vote is much closer, probably tied with the error of margin, around 44% each. Trump has to win more key battleground states to win, and may not - but he is ahead in Florida...

We will all know, in a week, whether we live in a world gone madder, or just relatively mad.

While it seems likely calmer heads will prevail, the recent Brexit win shows that polls can mislead, especially when one of the options is considered a bit embarrassing, rude or even racist - and Trump qualifies for these, at least.

If 42-45% of Americans admit they would vote for Trump, what does that say about the ones not so vocal? For surely, they must be there, as well. Some of the undecided will slide, and more likely they will slide to the wilder and more exciting fringe candidate. As may the libertarians.

Eyewear predicts that Trump will just about manage to win th…


Like a crazed killer clown, whether we are thrilled, horrified, shocked, or angered (or all of these) by Donald Trump, we cannot claim to be rid of him just yet. He bestrides the world stage like a silverback gorilla (according to one British thug), or a bad analogy, but he is there, a figure, no longer of fun, but grave concern.

There has long been a history of misogynistic behaviour in American gangster culture - one thinks of the grapefruit in the face in The Public Enemy, or Sinatra throwing a woman out of his hotel room and later commenting he didn't realise there was a pool below to break her fall, or the polluted womb in Pacino'sScarface... and of course, some gangsta rap is also sexist.  American culture has a difficult way with handling the combined aspects of male power, and male privilege, that, especially in heteronormative capitalist enclaves, where money/pussy both become grabbable, reified objects and objectives (The Wolf of Wall Street for instance), an ugly fus…


The Oscars - Academy Awards officially - were once huge cultural events - in 1975, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Shirley MacLaineandBob Hope co-hosted, for example - and Best Picture noms included The Conversation and Chinatown. Godfather Part 2 won. Last two years, movies titled Birdman and Spotlight won, and the hosts and those films are retrospectively minor, trifling. This year, some important, resonant films are up for consideration - including Hidden Figures and Moonlight, two favourites of this blog. Viola Davis and Denzel Washington will hopefully win for their sterling performances in Fences. However, La La Land - the most superficial and empty Best Picture contender since Gigi in 1959 (which beat Vertigo) - could smite all comers, and render this year's awards historically trivial, even idiotic.

The Oscars often opt for safe, optimistic films, or safe, pessimistic films, that are usually about white men (less often, white women) finding their path to doing the right thin…