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Volume 7, Issue 2: Poetics

A Requiem for Poetry

Wes Callihan

Poetry is dead. Or irrelevant, which lays it in the same coffin. Sure, there are college literature texts, and a special shelf at the local bookstore, but those are the tombstones. Oh yes; there is poetry in greeting cards. Requiescat in pace .

How the mighty have fallen. In Western culture's youth, and in its ancestors, poetry played powerful roles in developing minds, in transmitting wisdom, and in nourishing imaginations. In Classical Greece, reciters of the old stories (Homer's Iliad and Odyssey ) were an essential part of the public festivals held regularly, the myths were embodied in poetry (Hesiod and Pindar), and the language of drama was poetry (Sophocles' Oedipus Rex , etc.). For the Romans, poetry was a vehicle for nationalist history (Vergil's Aeneid ) and for philosophical speculation (Lucretius's On the Nature of Things ). For both Greeks and Romans, poetry was brother to public speaking and religious ritual, and it was the locus of education. Students memorized poetry (mostly Homer and Vergil) as the central part of their early education and thus acquired the material upon which they practiced their grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and upon which they drew in their adult years in public oratory, in conversation, and in passing on to their children the accumulated wisdom of their culture.
In the Middle Ages, likewise, it was a repository for wisdom (moral allegories), a body of tradition to be passed from generation to generation (ballads and fairytales), a teaching tool (mystery and morality plays), and entertainment (Chaucer's Canterbury Tales , etc.).
In the Renaissance, poetry as an educational tool and focus was restored (the theory was that poetry was a better teacher than either history or philosophy because it taught by delighting, something the Romans had said), and it became for the educated a means to preferment and publicity (Sir Walter Raleigh) and a plaything with which to entertain friends and the court (Shakespeare).
Even in the nineteenth century, poetry was considered valuable and powerful enough to warrant the granting of a title (poet laureate), a pension, and a commission (to speak for the country) from the state. What's more, the average man knew who the laureate was and read him (Tennyson was the Victorian laureate and one of the most famous men of his day). We still have poet laureates, but now it means but a smallish stipend and the chance to be published in tiny, counterculture journals; and who knows who the poet laureate of the United States of America is right now?
Now, only two kinds of poetry remain in serious use on a regular basis by a large segment of Western society. The first is music lyrics, either that pouring out of radios, stereos, and music video channels, or that of the hymns sung by Christians and the Psalms they read in their Bibles. Apart from these, there is no serious, regular use of poetry in our society, and the poetry that forms the lyrics of music, whether secular ("my achy, breaky heart"?) or Christian ("Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, there's just something about that name"), often has little connection with a real love for the beauty and power of language. We teach poetry in our schools, but not as training for participation in a society in which a knowledge and understanding of poetry is essential; rather, it is a desperate attempt to give students, for possibly the last time in their lives, a dose of something for which the world they are about to enter has no use.
One reason for poetry's decline as a real cultural medium is the growth of science and materialism. The modern world finds value in "facts" and the pronouncements of science, not in figurative expressions of beauty and truth, so that the old poetry that has fed imaginations for so long is no longer needed.
A second reason is that in this century the practice of poetry itself has become detached from reality. Poets use language in such an arcane manner that only the initiated can enjoy it. Poets have excluded the average person from the cult of poetry and the average person responds by shrugging his shoulders and walking off.
The Christian church has acquiesced in all this by abandoning her participation in serious art and avoiding contact with culture, and her own art has become shallow and insipid. As Western culture has drifted from the intellectual moorings that connect it to reality, the only body of people who had an answer refused to speak.
We will finally discover that we have missed not just a plaything but a necessary part of human life as God intended it. William Symington, a nineteenth-century Scottish theologian, said that "imagination is one of the noblest faculties with which man has been endoweda faculty, indeed, the sound and proper use of which is not only necessary to the existence of sympathy and other social affections, but also intimately connected with those higher exercises of soul, by which men are enabled to realize the things that are not seen and eternal."
If the Christian had no other testimony than the Scriptures to the value of poetry, the Psalms alone should convince him, as they abound in the praise of beauty, both of God and of all His works; and those praises are couched in some of the finest poetry ever written. It would be grave folly to confess love for His Word and ignore the means He chose to convey it. If we would understand the Psalms (and much else of the Bible as well), we must understand them as poetry, for that is what they are. And if we would understand the Psalms as poetry, we must study and understand the art of poetry itself.

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