There was a time when people read poetry. When people worked at putting words in a string to a metered beat with a rhyming scheme, vied with each other to be published in literary magazines and see books of their collected works celebrated, and were read by a largish fraction of the reading world and commented on as representing the “spirit of their age.”
It wasn’t a terribly lucrative calling. No one ever got rich writing poetry, as a lucky few have gotten rich writing novels that become bestsellers and movie threequels. But there used to be people who were known for their poetry rather than their day jobs: Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot. Now try to name any poet with a popular following since about World War II. Maya Angelou, maybe? Go to FamousPoetsandPoems.com and see how many from their list of “popular poets” are still alive. Or search for poets born after 1951, and see how many you recognize. People don’t even get known for writing poetry these days.
Yet the structure imposed on language by meter and rhyme have been a huge part of literature in the western tradition. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which practically started western literature, were all poetry. The Greek plays had long, poetic passages for the chorus to sing, the odes, between which came the spoken action of the play, the episodes. Chaucer was all poetry. Ditto Shakespeare. William Shakespeare’s plays didn’t usually rhyme, except for a couplet at the end of the scene, where the rhyme was used to round out a closing thought and tell the audience to expect a scene change. John Milton in Paradise Lost actively disdained rhyme as a stupid fashion unsuitable to his heroic verse. Maybe he was just no good at it.
There is something about meter and rhyme, the precise order and choice of words, that appeals to the language centers of the human brain. The meter draws the mind along. The rhyme creates echoes and likenesses. The pattern flows through the mind. One clue to the truth of this is that poetry is usually easier to memorize than plain text: something about the structure draws you to the next set of words, like a train on a track.1
As with most of the arts, poetry succumbed to a kind of flippant decadence in the middle of the 20th century. Like painters who resorted to blobs and drizzles of pigment without actually trying to communicate anything to the human mind, a few poets tried to put words on the page in ornate patterns that didn’t actually have any coherent meaning. Dada, yada, blah, blah, blah. … It didn’t catch on.2
So now poetry as a human exercise is almost dead. A few diehards will write and trade poems with each other. But, for most of popular culture, a 2,700-year-old tradition of using rhyme and meter has disappeared in the last 50 years.
How can something so elemental, so engraved in the human neuron, so essential to human exchange, just up and die? Or, as Ellen Ripley asked, “Did IQs just drop sharply while I was away?”3
The answer is that, like the dinosaurs, poetry died out in one form to continue in another and even more successful form. For, you see, the 20th century also saw the rise of recorded music.4 Tin Pan Alley. Crooners and balladeers. Show tunes. Rock and roll, country and western, and hiphop. The air—and then the radio waves, and then the internet—were suddenly filled with words put to music. Where, before, you had to go to a hall and sit down to hear to a great singer, or know a group who could play and sing and would come to your party, or make music yourself with the family around the piano, suddenly words and music were pouring through the culture. The power of structured language met the power of chords and melody, and neither would ever be the same. The need for poetry as mere written or spoken language passed onto something even more compelling and fulfilling.
Nothing good ever dies. The human soul goes on. Progress passes everywhere.
1. Meter can also emphasize key ideas. Think of the famous line from Hamlet: “And in that sleep of death what dreams may come.” It was written in iambic pentameter, where the second syllable in each meter is accented (iambs), and the line has five pairs of such two-beat “metrical feet” (pentameter). Correctly applied, the line highlights its key words: “and IN that SLEEP of DEATH such DREAMS may COME.” Conversely, Rudyard Kipling’s The Explorer was written in trochaic quadrameter—first syllable accented (trochees) in each of four pairs (quadrameter)—“SOMEthing HIDden. GO and FIND it. GO and LOOK beHIND the RANGes.” The beat drives you like a drum. That’s the power of poetry over any reasoned, intellectual structure of mere prose.
2. It didn’t exactly catch on in painting, either. But apparently more people are willing to spend money on a canvas, hang it in their homes, and pretend they like and understand it in order to be seen as cool, than will buy a book of nonsense syllables and try to mouth their way through them. It may be something to do with having too much money.
3. Sigourney Weaver, Aliens. The most quotable movie in science fiction.
4. See “Coming At You” from October 24, 2010, in my Science and Religion blogs.