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Slowing the Decline of Poetry

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Despite our enchantment with words provocatively strung together, from grafitti to advertising copy, Americans are ambivalent about poetry.

We early find ourselves chanting insults, bouncing balls, choosing sides, or skipping rope in measured and rhymed verses that become engraved in our minds. In school, generations of us learned by heart texts that echoed through life: Poe's "Bells,'' Scott's "Lochinvar,'' Browning's "How They Brought the Good News From Ghent to Aix,'' Kipling's "Gunga Din,'' anonymous ballads.

Yet few Americans would confess to liking poetry in any form, let alone to actually reading it, even occasionally.

This sad state of affairs was underscored last year, when The Los Angeles Times--in a move that drew national attention--decided that it would no longer review books of poems.

Although the reasons for widespread indifference to poetry are complex, the schools certainly bear much of the responsibility.

Poetry in school used to be fun. I still remember counting the tintinnabulation of the refrain in Poe's work: the word "bells'' repeated 13--or was it 15?--times. As I chanted the poem before a class, I moved my fingers behind my back.

I was vaguely confused about young Lochinvar's swimming the Eske River where "ford there was none.'' "Ford,'' I thought dimly, referred to a car.

We could even win prizes for a form of advanced recitation called "elocution,'' in which we learned to express the dramatic import of a text.
We lost ourselves in these works, whatever their eternal esthetic value. The sound was catchy, and, for the most part, we immediately understood the compelling contents.

We learned some history in the trochees of "Hiawatha'' and the dactyls of "Evangeline.'' Poe's "Annabel Lee'' produced a sad, pleasurable resonance among adolescents discovering the anguish of young love.

Out of school, we repeated naughty limericks and other forms of light verse, like the irreverent ditties of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and the traditional ballads of the current folk singers.

In high school and college, poetry became an opportunity for serious intellectual pleasure in small advanced classes, occasions to resolve the complexities and ambiguities of a text. A proper course in Dickinson, say, or in Yeats required spending hours Talmudically explicating a word, a phrase, a sentence, and analyzing the sounds of lines. No lawyer, scientist, businessman, or government official, if he wants to learn to use language to best effect, could do better than to read poems with committed care.

The communal reading and sharing we once practiced in and out of school remain important for the enjoyment and understanding of great poetry. Homer's Odyssey and Iliad were preserved by a bard's chant, and the texts of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides in theatrical presentation during quasi-religious occasions. With the exception of the sonnets and a few long poems, Shakespeare wrote his great works to be spoken in performance. And many contemporary poets read their verse in concert or nightclub-like settings.

We might attribute the current decline of poetry in part to pedagogical confusions.

Memorizing fell into disuse during the era of permissiveness because it was mechanical, more often replacing than reinforcing teaching and learning.

Under the pressures of intellectual fashions, the schools--properly, I think--rejected the shallow sentimentality of many traditionally popular works, such as Joyce Kilmer's "Trees,'' but foundered in dealing with respectable substitutes. When once I tried to get a class of teachers to respond to Robert Frost's "Birches,'' for instance, I found they were at a loss, talking about dendrology and Frost's biography rather than the sense of the poem.

To encourage children to be "creative,'' teachers pushed the merits of free verse. For example, they urged children to write haiku, those fiendishly compacted, seemingly offhand miniatures which our Imagist poets tried so earnestly to imitate with such indifferent results.

The new verse forms, many teachers said, were emancipated from the old-fashioned constraints of meter, rhyme, and stanza. Of course, unhampered by sense, punctuation, or craft, anyone can grunt spontaneously. It subverts the character of poetry to teach that form diminishes richness or freedom of expression.

Just as too many teachers still prepare their charges to write without first teaching them what and how to read, too many detach poetry from content and context. The schools are now producing generations who regard it with an uncomprehending, grudging, pietistic awe: Poetry was created back in time somewhere, in the olden days when Shakespeare and somebody named Wadsworth used to hang out together.

And many readers look on the elusive mysteries of much current writing with hostility, suspicious that artsy conspirators are putting over still another hoax on them, as they did with the painting of Picasso and Pollock.

The Los Angeles Times dropped the reviewing of poetry with ambivalence. Jack Miles, editor of the book review, pointed out that while he would no longer run reviews of volumes of poetry, he would publish "one brief poem in each Sunday issue ... with just a word about its author and the new collection from which it had been taken.''

His reasoning was simple and, like much good poetry, based on a clear recognition of reality. Not many newspaper readers buy or read volumes of poetry, Mr. Miles argued; reviewers of poetry are likely to be highly specialized experts, best understood by their fellows; and many contemporary poems themselves are nearly impossible for most readers to understand.

Indeed, publishing an actual poem, forcing readers to deal with it as they are able, might do more for poetry today than criticism that compounds the difficulties. As Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post's book reviewer, has written, "Contemporary American poetry is read by poets, by writing students, and by students of literature--and by almost no one else.''

Nevertheless, a few respected journals continue to pay tribute to poetry on the page. The New Yorker and The American Scholar list poems of 10 lines with the same emphasis in their tables of contents as they do lengthy essays or short stories. Such gestures reflect a powerful, if increasingly vestigial, respect for poetry.

I wonder whether the new candor about the problems of poetry might not pique us to pay it more attention, both in and out of school. We enjoy words--on television, in the puzzle sections of newspapers, in boxed adult games. Is not poetry another area to explore in the landscape of language?

We might read poems aloud to friends and family, however self-consciously for a while, in the way we share epigrams and clever insults; we might ruminate about the import and effect of a text, in the way we mull over the meaning of a politician's comment.

Might we not revive with profit recitation of the old classics as part of the effort to teach communication?

We should reinstate in all levels of schooling a knowledgeable, receptive examination of poetry in every form and idiom: classical and modern, public and private, mundane and recondite, plain and ornate, from the naive to the sophisticated.

Vol. 7, Issue 27, Page 22

Published in Print: March 30, 1988, as Slowing the Decline of Poetry
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