Poetry was once one of the most significant literary mediums in popular culture. Today, it is negated from public discourse and communication, dismissed as pompous, presumptive, and lacking in use in the modern, digital age. As Barr (2006) argues, there is a "striking absence" of poetry "from the public dialogues of our day" (p. 434). He also alerts to the fact that "a century ago our newspapers commonly ran poems in their pages ... today one rarely sees a poem in a newspaper" (p. 434), which evidences the decline in poetry's popularity. In contrast, in the nineteenth century, “the most eccentric feature of [the] entire culture [was] that it was simply mad for poetry” (Curran, 1986, p. 5), signifying a distinctive shift in the prioritisation of the form in modern society.
Today, poetry has lost its grip on culture; no longer a matter of public importance, it has receded to the background of literature. One factor in poetry's downfall is the decline of print culture. As more convenient modes of communication have arisen with the growth of digital culture, reading has ultimately been replaced by more informative and entertaining forms (Gioia, 2003, p. 22). It is not necessarily that the production of literature is declining, but rather, as Gioia (2003) understands, that its "position in the culture has changed significantly over the past few decades" (p. 22). Jack Foley attends to the fact that "at the current moment writing is beginning to seem 'old-fashioned'" (Gioia, 2003, p. 23). Gioia (2003) insists that poetry has lost its public role, a duty it held for centuries, and is now the exclusive venture of a small, isolated group of individuals (p. 1). For many critics, then, poetry has become reduced to an exclusive form of art that fails to connect with the masses.
Image 1: Ghosh, A. (2020). Technology Domination on Human Beings.
It would be a natural assumption that poetry's decline has thereby reduced its significance. It is certainly accurate to attest that poetry no longer possesses the public role it once held, and that poetry is not as widely read, or as highly commended, as it once was. However, this article seeks to destabilise claims of poetry's insignificance as a result of these facts, arguing that despite its decline, poetry still possesses significant social power. It will consider poets' and critics' views on the significance of poetry as an effective medium of articulation and connection, as well as draw attention to the importance of poetry in times of social anxiety, turmoil, and hardship.
The poet's engagement with world events often steps outside objective political fact, articulating for their readers the inexpressible emotions and reactions that they could not put themselves into words. It is for this reason that, following the New York terrorist attack of 2001, people sought to console themselves "with poetry in an almost unprecedented way" (Burt, 2003, p. 534). According to Burt (2003), Mary Karr contended that "I probably faxed more copies of poems ... in the following weeks [of the attack] than I had in years" (p. 534). This was an unprecedented event: people had no way of knowing how to deal with the intense emotional trauma caused by the attack, and many turned to verse to articulate for them the very emotions they struggled to process. One particular poem stood out in its proliferation during the wake of the attack. As Daniel Swift wrote in The Times Literary Supplement, it was W .H. Auden's "September 1, 1939" that heavily circulated newspapers and magazines; his "words [were] everywhere" (Burt, 2003, p. 534). Auden's poem was eerily apt for the 2001 attack, speaking of "waves of anger and fear" (Auden, 1940, p. 6), and "the unmentionable odour of death" (p. 10) that "offends the September night" (p. 11). That so many turned to poetry to come to terms with such an unprecedented event evidences the significance poetry still holds in our modern society. As Keniston (2011) argues, "poetry seemed suddenly crucial to the national experience of processing the attacks" (p. 659). It was not only older poetry that was revitalised in the wake of the attacks: contemporary poets also used poetry as response medium (p. 659), reflecting the significance of poetry at this time in offering:
"a crucial intervention in a national dialogue widely perceived as lacking reflection and temperance" (Keniston, 2011, p. 659).
In this way, whilst poetry could not effect political change, cohesion, or bring peace, it offered something fundamentally human: an opportunity for people to process their feelings and reactions, and to find solace in the fact that others understood them. This collective subjectivity offers insight into another significant power of poetry: its ability to allow readers to understand their experiences and connect them to their "own shared reality with others" (Pearson, 2016, p. 4). As a medium that offers a communal opportunity to make sense of the world (p. 4), poetry offers individuals insight into the "pathos of other human beings and the source of their suffering" (Burt et al., 2007, p. 300), allowing them to better understand themselves.
Image 2: Kollwitz, K. (1932). Solidarity.
Poets have written about the duty of poetry to respond, and bear witness, to political events for centuries. Often described as both a curse and a gift, poets find themselves possessing a grand responsibility to act as a witness to feeling, thought, and event. In his poem "Meditations in an Emergency", O'Hara (1967) speaks of his "duty to be attentive" (p.38), finding himself drawn to poetry in an almost mythical way, claiming "I am needed by things as the sky must be above the Earth" (p. 38). In a similar way, T.S. Eliot is quoted to have once said that it is the modern poet's duty to find "a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history" (Haas, 2003, p. 31). In times of hardship, society alerts to the potential of poetry as a connective and articulating form and finds itself calling on poets to articulate for them human truths in an increasingly inhumane world.
A more modern poetical take comes from Demetria and Johnson (2009). Their view on the relationship between poetry and the political follows the sentiment of duty evoked by earlier writers. Johnson and Demetria (2009) comment, “political engagement on the part of writers isn’t optional. We simply do not have the luxury of looking the other way” (p. 1). Demetria and Johnson's take on the power of poetry fundamentally relies on ideas of humanity and community, rooting its significance in its power to unite people in its articulation of communal human truth. They explore how writers must “act, always in community” (p.1), when faced with moments of political hardship and turmoil. In this way, one can clearly see that poetry is a necessarily elevated form, and that, as evidenced by the poetic call following the terrorist attacks of 2001, society relies upon the medium to articulate incomprehensible emotion, a reliance poets take very seriously.
Image 3: Hopper, E. (1952). Morning Sun.
This role of poetry is mirrored in poetic responses to the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. In the wake of a pandemic that left the world filled with uncertainty, anxiety, and loneliness, people searched for a medium that filled the physical void of social connection. Levine (2020) speaks of the necessity of poetry of the pandemic, which forms “impressions of our own uncertainty” (p. 24). Bennett’s "Dad Poem" (2021) evidences the way in which verse is significant in its connective potential. The direct address of his poetry highlights its connective capacity, where “you” provide connection to a child otherwise out of reach, a “veiled vision” and “second-hand sight” (Bennett, 2021, p. 17). As this article has explored, poetry can act as a vessel through which people’s anxieties and emotions can be mirrored by words. It seeks to make one feel heard and feel less alone. As Levine (2020) suggests, pandemic poetry “feels alive and wrestling toward some as yet out of reach understanding” (p. 24), evoking a shared struggle towards comprehension. The poetry of the pandemic articulates society’s wishes for a return to the ordinary (p. 24) as Dennis Nurkse in his poem “Conversation Behind the White Curtain” evokes, “I want to go back to being a body. A voice with eyes” (Qtd in Levine, 2020, p. 24). Poems such as this alert to the commonality of feeling, raising a collective subjectivity that invites readers out of their solitude and into the comfort of shared emotion.
Poetry cannot affect political change. It cannot solve political crises or bring about lasting peace. What it can do, as this article has expressed, is offer a comforting medium through which people can come to terms with their own struggles and find community in a collective voice of understanding. Poetry has certainly declined in popularity in this new century, but that does not reflect upon its significance. In times of crisis, people source comfort, compassion, and raw human emotion within poetry, relying on verse to articulate their confusing and isolating feelings. Poetry's significance is rooted in its ability to help people work through times of personal and social turmoil, to offer a guide through hardship that reminds people they are ultimately not alone.
Auden, W. H. (1940). "September 1, 1939". Another Time, Random House.
Barr, J. (2006). American poetry in the new century. Poetry, 188(5) 433–441.
Bennett, J. (2021). Dad Poem. The Yale Review, 109(3).
Burt, S. (2003). "September 1, 1939" Revisited: Or, poetry, politics, and the idea of the public. American Literary History, 15(3), 533-559.
Burt, S., Fried, D., Jackson, M., & Warn, E. (2007). Exchange: Does poetry have a social function? Poetry, 189(4), 297-309.
Curran, S. (1986). Poetic form and British Romanticism. Oxford University Press on Demand.
Gioia, D. (2003). Disappearing ink: Poetry at the end of print culture”. The Hudson Review, pp. 21-49.
Haas, L. (2003). "The Revival of Myth: Allusion and Symbols in The Wasteland." Ephemeris, pp. 31-33.
Johnson, M., & Demetria, M. (2009). The poet as political activist: A conversation with Demetria Martínez”. World Literature Today, 83(5), 25-27.
Keniston, A. (2011). “Not needed, except as meaning": Belatedness in post 9/11 American poetry. Contemporary Literature, 52(4), 658-683.
Levine, R. (2020). Poetry for a pandemic. American Book Review, 42(1), 24-25.
O’Hara, F. (1967). Meditations in an emergency. Grove Press, 38-40.
Pearson, R. (2016). Unacknowledged Legislators: The poet as lawgiver in post-revolutionary France. Oxford University Press.
Image 1: Ghosh, A. (2020). Technology Domination on Human Beings [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://india-art.blog/technology-domination-painting/
Image 2: Kollwitz, K. (1932). Solidarity [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.wikiart.org/en/kathe-kollwitz/not_detected_235991
Image 3: Hopper, E. (1952). Morning Sun [Painting]. Courtesy of The Columbus Museum of Art. Retrieved from: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/edward-hopper-morning-sun-jo-1895972