Poetry in an Unpoetic Age

We live in an age of image-laden screens and customized e-media, an age in which information, e-connectedness, and money rule all. Whatever remnants of poetry, as it used to be studied in schools and universities, has morphed into the blase song lyrics of the day. To most music listeners, their songs–regardless of who they listen to–are the poetry of their lives, and all the experience of language they are ever likely to need aside from some social talk.

What used to be called poetry in North America and England, for instance–such as the poems of Frost, Shakespeare, and Dickinson–can no longer compete with the demands and expectations of a fast-moving, impatient, easily-bored and distracted movie-headed populace. The genre formerly known as poetry is simply too boring, wordy, irrelevant, highbrow, and difficult to read. It requires context, an ability to read thoughtfully between the lines, and an interest in and love of words and language.

That poetry is not utilitarian has been known for many years. No remaining poets of the day can make a living as Frost and Service once did. A knowledge of–let alone an exposure to–poetry will not make one rich and connected as in e-connected. In short, there’s no money in it, or nothing that one needs to connect with. It is no wonder then that poetry has disappeared from changing schools and curricula. Poetry won’t help one to become an entrepreneur or or even help one to find a job. The reading, writing of, and study of poetry is a sheer waste of time, and one would do much better to buy the latest smartphone and focus on building one’s financial portfolio.


And yet…making money, being a slave to one’s smartphone and checking e-mails nonstop even in the night is, well, very limited and limiting. Deadening and totally unfocused, if you ask me. So why poetry, why read, write and study it?

My own love of poetry did not come naturally. I can remember listening to my father carrying me between two city apartment buildings and reciting “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” as he pointed out the stars magically above. Something happened. The image and the rhyme got in me somehow and I have carried that sixty-year-old memory ever since.

In Grade 4, I memorized (complete with punctuation and line breaks) Walter de la Mare’s poem (What %age of kids today memorize a poem of their very own?) that begins with “Someone came knocking at my wee, small door.” When I went trick-or-treating a couple of years after, a homeowner demanded I perform a trick and that was the poem I performed, as if I had memorized it only minutes before.

I can remember my grade 5 teacher reading our class “David” outside to us on the school lawn. What a story. What conflict. What magical words–”faceted cone”, “musky woods”, “cold blue chasms and seracs”, “thirsting lichens”. Whatever I know and understand of the Rockies, mercy-killing, and true friendship dates back to my first encounter with that narrative-poem, the Great Canadian Poem by Earle Birney.

In grade 11, I met Brian Kells, the man who was to direct my choice of career and teaching style. He did a unit on Robert Frost with the class and I have never forgotten him drawing bending birches on the chalkboard to show the class what Frost was talking about in “Birches”. Many years later, I would to get to thank both him and my grade 5 teacher for the gift of the word, that they instilled in me, and which lay dormant until I began my first efforts at writing poetry in university: “A new born sun awakes in seas of flower flagrance blooms” “A promise came from Paul today/Heaven will die today, he said.”

Flash forward to the early 1980s and my fondly-remembered colleague and co-author, Glen Kirkland, who demystified for me the ways of free verse. I would never have become a successful poet if it was not for his influence. Many thanks, old friend.

And, of course, I taught poetry for 30 years to high school English students, judged newspaper poetry contests, had over 100 poems published in magazines and books, read in public and published chapbooks with my performance poetry trio Spiritus. Why? I suppose a love of performing (another story), opportunity, and some recognition (including prizes, appearances on tv and radio).

But, in this decidely unpoetic age, and given all the criticisms of poetry, why do I still read and write poems? The answers are many and they range from the familiar/mundane to some perhaps surprising revelations.

I have always enjoyed words, especially new words and words with connotations like Shakespeare’s sense of the word “wit”. I enjoy the sound of words and the sound of different voices reading the words. I enjoy playing with words whether writing or reading them. I like moving them around for different affects and effects.

I have always found poetry to be the most personal, intimate, and moving form of language; poetry always speaks from the heart, soul and spirit. That is why and how poems are alive for me, like sacred artifacts and monuments to Keatsian truth and Beauty. “Genuine poetry is conceived and composed in the soul.”–Matthew Arnold. That is why and how I write as I do.

At its best, poetry is deep and deals with deep topics and feelings, poems such as Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations on Immortality”. At its best, it presents large perspectives and meditations about human experience and human nature. Ultimately, poetry has helped me to understand myself, others, life, and love much better.

I have, as I have mentioned, enjoyed the performance aspect of poetry. Frost who was quite the ‘ham’ spoke of poetry as a “performance in words.” I think Dylan Thomas was also right when he spoke of a good poem this way: “The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it.” And there is, incidentally, the thought that poetry does matter and is of value.

Poetry’s conciseness has always marked it as superior for me. Most poems are short or brief and can be read in minutes unlike longer pieces such as plays or novels. I find their eloquence (“Brevity is the soul of wit”) to be much punchier and often more memorable than a piece of good prose. In an age of bits and bytes, it’s surprising to me that the hoi-polloi has not yet glommed onto poetry as the perfect genre for these very short-attentioned times.

“The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom.”–Robert Frost.

(edited and previously published here Oct. 30/2012)

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