When you think of poetry, do you think of pretentiousness, political statements or pompous words? When was the last time you read poetry without it being a requirement for a class?
Do these rhetorical questions perhaps remind you of a contemporary form of poetry?
Martha Nasch, a housewife from St. Paul, Minn., wrote these words while confined to a psychiatric hospital in the 1920s:
“… I’m judged as a goof and a nut,
And classed far less than a mule
Behind thickened walls, where Satan now calls,
I play the asylum fool.”
For seven years, poetry served as Nasch’s escape from the hospital walls and window into the real world. Today, her granddaughter and great-granddaughter of her have compiled all of her poems of her in a book titled “Poems from the Asylum,” including an account where Nasch is restrained against her will of her.
Nasch’s poetry is enough to remind us that words are truly the only legacy that can persist through the damage of space and time. The escape that her words from her provided her is now able to give her readers an insight into different worlds. If mere words can provide this vivid escapism, then why is poetry dying?
Even though the general readership of poetry itself is on the rise — according to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the number of adults reading poetry between 2012 and 2017 grew by 76% — there is a sense of niche poetry culture that isolates the general public from the art since a large part of its popularity is concentrated in younger generations that are looking at poetry in its contemporary forms.
Poetry has power because of its ability to make large statements in the smallest amount of words. It can help express the ideas that many of us may not have the capacity to fully articulate. The simple schematic arrangement of words also has power in the comfort it provides to its readers. The power of poetry has toppled governments with its revolutionary ideas, and Amanda Gorman’s poetry performance during President Joe Biden’s inauguration created a sense of togetherness after the long, tumultuous first weeks of 2021.
For centuries, poetry has been an expression of love, regret, anger, celebration — even natural imagery is celebrated by the most lucid descriptions in rhyme. This medium can express anything and everything, but its decreasing mainstream popularity suggests that either the poets of the world are doing something wrong or that readers aren’t being exposed to the variety of works in the world. As searches for poetry become more cyclical, students searching for resources for their coursework are often the ones taking an interest in looking for poetic works rather than individuals who would independently read poems.
This general hesitation towards poetry can be attributed to the way that it is taught in schools. Most language class curriculums focus on poetic devices, techniques and other linguistic complexities behind creating different types of poems. Students are taught about sonnets, villanelles, found poems, haikus, meters, ballads and more. For example, students learning sonnets written in older English focus on the rhyme schemes, syllables, meter and devices used in the poem instead of how and why the author used certain words to respond to certain occurrences. As haikus become defined by 17 syllables and found poems become methodical searches for complex words, students end up tediously categorizing works of literature. They then may end up developing a sense of resentment toward poetry and later associate it with analytical work and time consumption instead of the escapism and relatability that poetry stands to offer. By focusing on the rhetorical aspects of poetry, the original emotional impact intended by the authors is often lost.
UCI professor Rebecca Schultz, who teaches English 16: The Craft of Poetry, expresses similar sentiments regarding her approach to teaching poetry. She focuses on trying to help her students “experience the poem,” and even ensures that the experience is fun by choosing poems that feel “alive,” comparing Shakespeare’s sonnets to contemporary sonnets about bar hopping. Calling it “Shakespeare trauma,” or the fear of studying older and complex poetry because of the difficulty it presents to students in high school, she acknowledges students’ various past experiences with the study of poetry. As a result, Schultz makes sure to stray away from the analysis of specific literary devices so as not to trigger past fears of rote, or memorization-based learning, and students can instead focus on immersing themselves into the author’s perspective.
Schultz’s approach chooses to help students understand how poems are rooted in the world and universal experiences. In looking at how a decreasing number of people take a vested interest in poetry, Schultz also expressed concerns regarding the Common Core curriculum taught in American schools from kindergarten to 12th grade. She argues that there is an unknown pressure on teachers to emphasize teaching for tests that take students away from learning the power of poetry and understanding the inherent desire to respond to worldly issues with language. Instead, students’ curriculum often replaces the immersive, sensory experience of literature with robotic memorization of poetic devices.
With her experience in working in publishing, Schultz also mentioned that the promotion and publication of newer poets tend to be much more market-focused. Since stories tend to be “easier to enter,” poetry often cannot provide the same form of entertainment that is expected of prose found in books and narratives. The lack of access to classic poetry with the shift in the education system has also led to a decrease in enthusiasm for the attention to language that poetry itself demands. Since poetry does not always target a specific age group or demographic, the newer forms that seem to attract readers are those that focus on relatability for all reading groups. According to Schultz, creating a “real” poem means “using language to capture an experience that communicates specificity to the reader — something true but unsayable.”
The social aspect of poetry has been decreasing in popularity as well. With the rise of “BookTok” and “BookTube,” communities on TikTok and YouTube platforms dedicated to literary discussions, contemporary writers have been gaining immense recognition, encouraging younger generations to become more interested in the different genres of fiction. The lack of analysis and interpretation necessary to understand prose helps move it forward in the literary race, while poetry gets left behind. As fiction and its genre companions, like self-help and essay collections, gain constant promotion, poetry tends to be viewed as a difficult form of work. Poetry is often considered unappealing to the general reading population, with only poetic collections published by celebrities tending to gain space for review and critique.
Even though the seemingly decreasing interest in poetry may imply that it is an acquired taste, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. The beauty of poetry originates from the fact that it doesn’t need to be understood. It leaves spaces open for interpretation and application to our own selves.
When Joy Harjo, the current National Poet Laureate, wrote:
“Everybody has a heartache —
This silence in the noise of the terminal is a mountain of bison
Nobody knows, nobody sees— ”
Harjo doesn’t just tell her own story; she tells a universal story of stifling loneliness in crowds. Every poet may just be writing how they feel, but in doing so, they are expressing how the world feels too. Reading more poetry doesn’t exist because it seems fancy to quote obscure writers in everyday conversations; it exists because it allows us to find relatability.
And in moments of confusion, everyone can find some words to hang onto:
“… To those I once knew
On Earth, wide and blue,
I’ll send them my thoughts in a poem.”
Nandini Sharma is an Opinion Staff Writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.