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Poetry Died 100 Years Ago This Month

By Matthew Walther at the New York Times

Photo by Trust "Tru" Katsande / Unsplash

Like many millennials, I was educated, if that’s the right word for it, on the internet. The online music critics and antiwar bloggers of the mid-2000s who were my teachers did not introduce me to T.S. Eliot, but they made sure that I had reasonably detailed opinions about “Apocalypse Now Redux,” the 2001 update of Francis Ford Coppola’s classic war movie. This meant that I had heard Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men,” which the film features in a hammy (and on the whole rather effective) reading by Marlon Brando.

Not long after, I found a copy of the old Harcourt edition of Eliot’s “Collected Poems” in the library. “The Hollow Men” and a dozen other poems committed themselves effortlessly to my memory, where they have been lodged ever since. In those days, for reasons I could not understand (and would not wish to understand even now, lest the magic be dispelled), the poems seemed to have an incantatory power. I distinctly recall sitting at the back of the school bus and repeating, mantra-like, the following lines from “The Waste Land”: “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/Out of this stony rubbish?”

If you had asked me then, I would have imagined that the centenary of “The Waste Land” — published in book form 100 years ago this month — would be a big to-do. I don’t know exactly what I would have envisioned (parades? presidential decrees? a Sphinx-size statue of Eliot erected somewhere in the Great American Desert?). But it would have been more lavish than the quiet commemoration provided by the handful of recent publications from university and trade presses, of which the most enviable is a full-color facsimile of the original drafts of “The Waste Land” with Ezra Pound’s characteristically terse editorial notes (“Too loose”).

Modest as the festivities have been, I am certain that in 100 years there will be no poem whose centenary is the object of comparable celebration. This seems to me true for the simple reason that poetry is dead. Indeed, it is dead in part because Eliot helped to kill it.

Of course poetry isn’t literally dead. There have probably never been more practicing poets than there are today — graduates of M.F.A. programs working as professors in M.F.A. programs — and I wager that the gross domestic chapbook per capita rate is higher than ever. But the contemporary state of affairs is not exactly what one has in mind when one says that poetry is alive and well — as opposed to, say, on a luxe version of life support.

I’m hardly the first person to suggest that poetry is dead. But the autopsy reports have never been conclusive about the cause. From cultural conservatives we have heard that poetry died because, for political reasons, we stopped teaching the right kinds of poems, or teaching them the right way. (This was more or less the view of the critic Harold Bloom, who blamed what he called the “school of resentment” for the decline in aesthetic standards.)

Another argument is that the high modernist poets and their followers produced works of such formidable difficulty that the implicit compact between artist and audience was irrevocably broken. It is certainly difficult to imagine many of the suburban households that once contained popular anthologies such as “The Best Loved Poems of the American People” finding room on the shelf for Pound (“‘We call all foreigners frenchies’/and the egg broke in Cabranez’ pocket,/thus making history. Basil says”).

There is probably some truth to such arguments. But the problem seems to me more fundamental: We stopped writing good poetry because we are now incapable of doing so. The culprit is not bad pedagogy or formal experimentation but rather the very conditions of modern life, which have demystified and alienated us from the natural world.

Read the rest (NY Times . . . subscription may be required)