Once there were poets

Once there were poets, not there aren’t poets now, but now it hardly matters. The decline of poetry is remarkable, in the ancient past, everything was written in verse from religious teachings to philosophical tracts. Zurich Dada was one of the points in history when you can see the shift from poetry to music and art. Another place where you can see this shift is in China; Ai Wei Wei’s father was a poet whereas his son is an artist.

Once there were great poets whose poems changed the world. The last poets who made poetry that changed the world were The Last Poets. That was back in the early 1970s – The Last Poets were the progenitors of hip-hop. Where would Leonard Cohen be today if he had remained a poet rather than a songwriter?

This is not about what is hot and what is not, nor about the qualities of poetry compared to visual arts but rather the way that a society makes a particular art form powerful. Changes in culture are not random; new cultural forms emerge as others will wither due to a multitude of influences from the technology used to the psychosocial environment. For a poetry renaissance to occur, there would have to be profound changes in the social structures.

Some people want a revival of poetry, a return to Homeric epic poetry that could be recited by heart by every educated person. Some people want a resurrection of the circus, and sure, every now and then something comes along with something that looks like it might be the next wave in poetry or circuses. However these dreams are futile optimism because of the social structures, the forces of human social dynamics (economics, transportation, architecture, communication recording technology, etc.) that gave them power are no longer in place.

The desire to preserve art forms creates anachronisms. History re-enactors are not confined to those people who dress up in Civil War or Napoleonic uniforms. Whole sections of the arts are basically re-enactors with varying degrees of authenticity. Consider the repertoire of many orchestras, ballet and opera companies. Re-enactors desperate to detach from the contemporary to devoting their time to a period of the past. In Australia, massive state subsidies preserve opera, ballet and classical music at the cost of funding to other arts.

Old cultural forms decline because they no longer fit the world. Young women today would not tolerate the cloistered conditions that the corp de ballet in the Ballet Russe or the prostitution that came before it.

New cultural forms survive because they are better adapted to the social conditions. Even under stress, like slander or censorship, some newly evolved cultural forms still manages to thrive and out-compete an older, established rival because they are a better fit for the environment.

Rather than living in denial about the passing of art forms, or providing them with artificial life support with history re-enactors. I am advocating that it would be better to examine why there are declines and revivals of art forms. There is too much faith that the art forms are eternal and too little examination of the social forces that give them power.

Once there were rock musicians; it was all over in the 1990s with the rise of the DJ and cover bands. Once there were art critics… so many of these art forms have very long tails, and there are still plenty of woodcarvers.


About Mark Holsworth

Writer and artist Mark Holsworth is the author of two books, The Picasso Ransom and Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

2 responses to “Once there were poets

  • Dean Kyte

    A wonderful article, Mark.

    On the whole, I agree with you. There is no ‘poetry’ as such today, but I think that’s more a function of how ‘unpoetic’ our postmodern lives are. The condition of postmodernity is a condition of perpetual irony. Poetry is the opposite of irony: its incantatory, magickal quality comes from total belief, total faith in the ineffable magic of life.

    In my moments of toffy-nosed, highbrow codgeriness, I often grumble that in place of poetry we have ‘prose broken into lines’. I go to a few poetry readings around Melbourne now and then and I notice that what might be called ‘the hip-hop æsthetic’, fast tumbles of syncopated prose that barely rhymes, is what we have in place of poetry. I’m not particularly down on it, but as a translator of the poetry of Baudelaire and Michelangelo, it’s not for me.

    The spell-like quality of poetry demands a rigid network of rules to free the epiphanic words which the prose of the everyday cannot say. When there are no rules of prosody to rigidly constrain the form that words take, there is no poetry. I think it was Chesterton or Shaw who said that free verse is like free love: there is no such thing.

    That said, if we have no poetry as such, poetry is not dead, nor can it ever die, even if, in days of irony and disbelief, it seems moribund and in abeyance. I think Marshall MacLuhan was on to something when he observed that our re-tribalized electronic culture would form the basis for a renaissance in orality—for it’s from oral cultures, not literary ones, that poetry as high spiritual communication springs.

    But we’re also a visual, not a literate, culture. Hence the decline in ‘poetry as such’. I think that where poetry exists now, or where it’s emerging from, is in the synthesis of the oral and the visual. In that nexus, whether we call it ‘the Internet’, or ‘social media’, or ‘video games’, there is some widespread faith, some communal belief that is generative of poetry—the poetry that is proper to an illiterate time fecund in its own possibilities and potentialities, and forgetful of its history.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful words, Mark. It was a pleasure to read your article.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Thank you for your response to my post. However, I think that you mistake my historical analysis for a jeremiad. I don’t think that the world is poorer for the decline in poetry. Nor I don’t see any evidence that it is not a literate society, on the contrary, it is a more literate one, one where several hip-hop artists have larger vocabularies than Shakespeare. (The problem that you experience at current the poetry readings is that anyone with talent and intelligence will be doing something better with their time.) What I see evidence for, is not a shift between literate and oral or visual (I think that MacLuhan was thinking of telephones and televisions when he made those comments), but a far greater bandwidth of information distribution.

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