Why nobody likes poetry

Nick Nussen

It is often thought that poetry is dead and that all the poets are likewise cold in the earth. This is nonsense. We have more poets than ever, and their voluminous works are found in the approximately five million poetry magazines in circulation. The problem is that each publication has a readership of exactly 12.

Why does no one read poetry anymore? Television and the Internet, and the consequent decline in literacy, are the obvious culprits. But I suspect the nature of contemporary poetry is partly to blame.

First, most modern—or I should say postmodern—poetry lacks the archaic accoutrements of rhyme and regular meter (or rhythm). At this point, the educated person may leap from her seat and growl, “Poetry is not supposed to rhyme anymore!” I know. Unrhymed, or blank, verse was a godsend, and Whitman may very well have been god.

The fact that most contemporary poetry lacks rhyme and meter does not make it bad. Sometimes it is very good. But I am not concerned with the quality or necessary evolution of poetry; my concern is with the average person not giving a damn about poets and their highfalutin ways.

Whereas today we sing and hum pop songs, people in the past would chant poetry. The catchy rhymes and rhythms rolled through their heads like Beatles tunes. Indeed, poets like Wordsworth and Tennyson approached the celebrity of rock stars.

Now, the average person, like the average English major, cannot hear the rhythm of a line to save his life—let alone memorize and recite it in his spare time. He cannot, as Hamlet would say, tell a stressed syllable from a handsaw. Subconsciously, though, we hear the rhythms of speech. We speak it and sing it.

It is no surprise that the lyrics in popular music are often metrical. Rap music, being the most metrical and lyrically versatile, employs the poetic devices found in any dusty book on versification: elaborate rhymes, alliteration, assonance and consonance, and even (to use technical terms) iambic, trochaic, dactylic and anapestic meters. (Of course, the lyrics themselves are often stupendously inane, but that is beside the point.)

Although today’s poet will never know the fame of a Wordsworth—or even, for that matter, of a Ryan Seacrest—rappers, our favorite rhymesters and wordsmiths, are enormously famous. The popularity of rap music, whatever its nonmusical attractions, attests, I think, to the enduring enchantments of meter and rhyme.

The other objection the common reader has to contemporary poetry is that, somewhere along the way, poetry stopped making sense, and poets have been committed to eluding comprehension ever since. Thus, the average person reads a poem and is likely to say two things:

“It doesn’t rhyme,” and, “Very nice, but I don’t understand it.”

The poet, thinking the person an illiterate philistine, retorts that poetry doesn’t have to rhyme anymore (duh!). The poet satisfies himself by thinking that his poetry is “above” the reader’s feeble comprehension.

Indeed, his prodigious genius is above and beyond contemporary criticism, and he confidently awaits posthumous fame. In the meantime, he impresses his friends, who are not really listening to him, by reading his work in sonorous tones at the hippest bars and coffee houses, where the 14 enlightened citizens of the world congregate.

Of course, a lot of good poetry is unintelligible, and I challenge anyone to decipher some of Hamlet’s most magnificent and stupefying locutions. But, again, I am not concerned with the quality of poetry, but with the reasons for its being distasteful to the common citizen. The fact is that the average person does not know what the blazes these poets are blathering about.

The standard subjects that once pleased the simpleminded multitudes have long been exhausted. One can no longer think, “I have written the most exquisite sonnet about butterflies yesterday. I doubt the world will ever be the same.” The same goes for nightingales, the moon, the sunrise, or any straightforward treatment of love or death. One must dispense with such sentimental hogwash, and sincerity and simplicity are often jettisoned along with it.

Today’s poet must never be serious; above all she must be ironic, slightly cynical, “meta” or self-referential — and she must never say something so simple and stupid as “my love is like a red, red rose.” Poetry without a touch of irony is often intolerable, and sentimental pabulum is equally unpalatable. But sometimes the mischievous commoner would like to indulge the outdated, banal, and childish thought that his love is indeed like a red, red rose.

Good thing we have our poets to discourage such perversity.