Poetry is more powerful than ever

I love poetry. I hate poets.

That is an overstatement. I understand that most (by which I mean 99.99%) poets are in the process of becoming. It can take a looooooong time to master poetry. A bad poem can be written in moments. A great poem is the accrued experience of a lifetime. It’s best to either develop in private, or present your first thirty years or so of your material with a little modesty. Too many poets fail at either.

But poetry is important. Vitally so. The words of truly great poets – Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes (I feel I’m allowed to love both) William Carlos Williams, T S Elliot, Shakespeare, Kabir – to name a few I like rather a lot, capture ideas that the rest of us plodding models struggle to comprehend even as we live through them.   The cynical space in my mind believes this is why poetry exists in such a degraded form in the modern consumer culture. They don’t want us thinking too much, and great poetry makes you think.

But once again the emerging participatory culture of the internet is changing an aspect of our culture. At any other time in the last century a new American poet laureate would have gone unheard by much of the world. Now Philip Levine can as The Economist puts it ‘express the bitterness and promise of America‘ and the world can judge if they agree, instantly, virally and democratically. I think Levine’s work is rather beautiful, and a voice we need that in other times would have gone unheard.

Poetry may have been sidelined for a century or more, but in today’s culture of status updates and soundbites and the unremitting contest for the attention of billions, I think it is becoming more important and powerful than ever.

Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Director of creative writing at UoL, published with OUP and Cambridge. Currently travelling the world and writing a book.

4 thoughts on “Poetry is more powerful than ever

  1. Okay, I pretty much want to hug you — because I like both Plath and Hughes. People talk to balk at that, but Hughes was a tremendous talent.

    Anyway, to the point of your entry — I think that the internet has made poetry more accessible, which is both good and bad (for the obvious reasons). I’ve discovered a lot of poets via the internet; prior to the digital age, I never would’ve stumbled across Taylor Mali or Daphne Gottlieb. I’m damn glad that I did.

    Interesting post. :-)


  2. It’s an interesting idea, at a time when everything still seems to be re-settling, though I suspect the basic point about the art taking a long time to master applies across all forms, both written (from poetry to fiction and essays) and otherwise (in film, music, illustration, etc). All are now readily promotable via the net at earlier stages in people’s development than ever before (though I’m not entirely sure that’s quite as different as people often suggest: even in the days of vinyl, it was easy enough for anyone with a few quid spare to press up a batch of 45s or LPs to sell at gigs, or self-publish/photocopy/cyclostyle a few boxes of magazines or books, as I tried to argue here: http://serendipityproject.wordpress.com/2011/08/19/aug-19-2011-silver-coin-by-the-spasms-from-preseli-folk-lp-1979/). In that sense, I’m not sure it’s the thing itself that’s different, just the numbers doing it online in comparison.

    Besides, it’s always been the case that some of the best stuff is drowned by other stuff with marketing and distribution behind it (and many of the best poets of the Plath/Hughes era, let alone our own, are still well below the radar, even with the internet on hand to circulate their work). Generally agree with you here, though. There’s something worrying about the over-production of material and product, and we should remember that some of the greatest poems, books and songs in the language were one-offs by people who did it once, then never again to the same standard, and Larkin put out one slim collection for each decade of his writing life, which I think admirable. Even those who do produce large bodies of exemplary work crash as often as they take flight: dubious politics aside, Eliot barely put a word wrong in his poetry, but those verse-plays…I know they have their advocates, but – really, Tom?

    There’s even the odd dog tucked away in the lesser-read corners of Shakespeare’s Complete Works, so the rest of us have no chance of perfecting our oeuvres before going public.


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