Poetry: Dead or Alive?

In the Coffin?

Poetry is dead, the last remnant of a bygone era of oral tradition. The Greeks used poetry as a means of committing stories to memory; we have digital cameras. Arab and Sufi poets used poetry to commemorate the dead; we have photos and written autobiographies. Poetry is boring. Remember that time you hung out with your friend after class for coffee and Tennyson? No, of course you don’t. Because nobody likes poetry. Nobody would actively choose to sit down and unwind with a copy of Wordsworth or Brooks – unless it was assigned reading. And even then – let’s face it – you’re more likely to consult SparkNotes before you consult the first page.

Before you harrumph in protest with cries of “You’re wrong!” or “You wouldn’t understand!” – set down your monocle and corduroy jacket and listen. The last time you read poetry was probably to impress somebody of the opposite/ same sex. But, here’s a tip: they’re probably more likely to be impressed by somebody who doesn’t have a faux goatee or answers texts with maudlin replies of: “dark and dismal was the day/ I set eyes on you in May/ Tomorrow isn’t a good time to meet/ … err … I’ll ring you later, bye”. Poetry is obsolete. It’s never solved international crises: it’s never quelled uprisings, put an end to poverty, reduced carbon emissions. When the world is grappling with the devastating effects of climate change, we’ll be reading weather warnings, not poetry.

Or Still Alive?

Poetry is not dead. In our age of bite-sized, 40-characters-or-less information consumption, it is the ideal alternative to reading lengthy prose. Everybody likes poetry. They just don’t know it. Familiar with: “fresh outta jail, California dreamin’ / Soon as I step on the scene I’m hearin’ hoochies screamin’”? How about, “watcha gunna do with all that junk/ All that junk inside that trunk?”. Yes, that’s right. If you’ve ever sung along to Tupac, Black Eyed Peas, or MC Hammer outside Mooseheads at 2am – you’ve recited poetry. It’s time we stopped conceiving of it as an art form reserved for the literary and social elite. Poetry is everywhere, and for anyone. You don’t need a BA in English to appreciate the rhapsody of modern verse like that of Robert Pinsky or the vibrant slam of Patricia Smith.

Even Obama likes poetry. In 1981, two of his poems were published in the university journal “Feast”. The then 20-year-old Obama wrote about “Pop”, who:

Stands, shouts, and asks

For a hug, as I shrink, my

Arms barely reaching around

His thick, oily neck, and his broad back; ’cause

I see my face, framed within

Pop’s black-framed glasses

And know he’s laughing too.

If that doesn’t set you alight, consider these lines from Pinsky’s “Samurai Song”: “when I had no lover/ I courted sleep”, or remember Frost’s charge to go to “the woods to live deliberately”. Far from being dead, poetry will outlive you and me.