February 27, 2020

Hype and Shame — What our aversion to poetry means

It’s a pretty widely accepted idea that most people don’t like poetry, but why is that? More importantly, what does its evolution mean for that medium and for our aversion to art forms that we couldn’t access before?

Why people typically don’t like poetry

Most people who don’t like poetry can list a few reasons such it being snobby, meaningless, difficult or unremarkable. So, how did it earn such an ignoble reputation? Poet Rebecca Roach contextualizes this modern aversion to poetry in six factors:

  1. Dubious cultural value: beyond simply being “culturally important,” schools don’t instill students with the importance of poetry.
  2. The classics are over-taught: despite the value in their universal timeless themes, the same classics and lines are taught so much that their novelty and their importance wanes.
  3. Self-aggrandizing: Roach refers to the tendency of commenters on poetry to inflate their language in a way that deliberately makes poetry seem harder and creates barriers to discussion.
  4. Dogma: students there is only one correct way to interpret a given line, metaphor or message (likely again, because classics and the like have already been extensively researched to form crystallized conclusions on meaning).
  5. High Expectations: poetry’s historical reputation means people those writing it as a personal outlet have high expectations for it to accomplish something.
  6. Shame: whether someone’s trying to teach, understand or produce poetry, Roach says in the American context, the high standards wrapped around poetry plays into a general culture of shame and being “not good enough.”

In short, the intersection of tradition, education and shame leads to only two possible and very limited takes on poetry: “the problem is with poetry” (it’s too pretentious) or “the problem is with me” (I’m not smart or cultured enough).

How it’s evolving

Despite the inherited baggage behind poetry, like many other arts, it’s evolved with the times and with technology in a way that’s changed its reputation and made it more approachable:

  • Length: instead of almost 7 stanzas of 4-6 lines, some poets now employ only 8-10 lines (or less) for a single poem, making them shorter and sweeter.
  • Structure: modern poetry sets aside a lot of the form and structure conventions of the classics including rhythm, rhyme schemes.
  • Subject Matter: the subject matter has expanded beyond the popular nature and epic themes of the classics to include happenings in modern life that also emphasize social issues.
  • Platforms: poetry now has greater reach thanks to social media as shown by Rudy Franscico, who gained a following through Instagram.

As you’d might expect, these changes in the art form is also bound to trigger claims that it’s also “dying” with particular criticism directed at the rise and current popularity of unstructured free verse and the focus on seemingly mundane personal experiences. Not surprisingly, it’s a familiar new school vs. old school clash we’d find in any search for “the decline of (insert art form here).”

What is “poetry” to you?

At the end of the day, poetry is just another means of thoughtful expression through words, much like its much more popular sibling prose. Unfortunately, our pre-existing notions of what it is and who it’s for — possibly combined with some negative experiences — have closed off entire branches of the art to most of society.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a poet or style of poetry for you, just that you’d have to dig for it and nothing, least of all poetry’s existing “image,” should stop you. Sure, it helps to eventually lean into the history, accumulated wisdom and yes, even some of the existing baggage, but there’s nothing wrong with starting to enjoy a medium on your own terms — something we can thank our highly personalized online experience for.

The same applies outside of poetry: each of us has that creative medium that resembles “poetry” to us, something we love but everyone hates and vice versa. For one, we’ve talked about how Eugene, an admitted non-appreciator of music, had a very unexpectedly strong reaction to a moving live performance.

He might not be taking up piano anytime soon, but it’s at least one positive if random experience on the board. At the small cost of withholding our expectations (and unlearning what we think we know), we’re bound to find genuine appreciation and then some.

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