Susan D. Harris
Coalmine canary of cultural decay: the death of poetry
By Susan D. Harris
November 3, 2014

Poetry as enjoyment for the masses is dead, and it will likely have a poorly written epitaph if modern poets have their say.

I'm sure many people will be happy or apathetic to hear of its demise; largely because for the last forty years its deteriorating quality has turned it into an embarrassing joke.

The satire of Herman Munster best reflected the generation that began the downward spiral of poetry from its pinnacle as an art form:

Life is real, life is earnest
If you're cold, turn up the furnace

Reactions to his musings were much the same that the esoteric elite would express today: "Man, that cat is deep...what a message."

Having scoured most poetry outlets in the country, I've found nothing that comes even remotely close to, or strives to attain, the pure perfection of:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

There are a multitude of examples which I could quote to prove how badly contemporary poetry has degenerated into an unpleasant experience; but I'll spare readers the torture. A normal person's reaction to modern poetry usually fluctuates between laughter, confusion, or downright anger at the slaughter of the English language. While modern poets are admired in their cloistered academic circles, no one has whispered to them that poetry does not exist unless it is embraced by the common man.

Meanwhile, established corps d'elite literary cliques are raking in vast sums of money (sometimes called 'reading fees') from aspiring poets who enter futile contests they can never win. Contest guidelines instruct them to adhere to ludicrous rules such as length and theme; and a general disdain for any type of rhyme or meter is best expressed in their lists of previous winners. Had things always been this way, Frost, Longfellow, Keats and Kipling would have died in obscurity; Shakespeare's sonnets would be lost to history.

Anis Shivanni, a writer from Houston, TX, put it best when he observed that the only means available to publish poetry today is through poetry contests. He contends:

... that's one way poetry is being killed in this country, reduced to consensus-by-committee, stripped of individual vision, yielding vast parchments of conformity and mediocrity, worth only as means of boosting resumes and securing academic jobs. Our poetry is haunted today by a blind adherence to lack of ambition – and the poetry contest model is part of the problem.

Poetry contests and awards seem to be confusing in their own right. The New England Poetry Club claims to have "the oldest poetry reading series in the country." Founded in 1915 by American poets Amy Lowell, Conrad Aiken and Robert Frost, it is disconcerting that none of their awards are named after their American founders. Indeed the top prize, the Daniel Varoujan Award, is named in honor of an Armenian poet who was killed by the Turks. His only link to America seems to be the Armenian-Americans who now run the New England Poetry Club.

Then there is the Poetry Foundation which gives out a Mark Twain Poetry Award "in the hope that American poetry will in time produce its own Mark Twain." (Yes, those are the actual words from their website.) Apparently they don't think the talent pool is worthy enough – they haven't had a winner since 2008.

The greatest lament by far is that the death of lyrical, metered, rhymed poetry is the death of that part of the English language that combines the mathematical beauty of geometry with the symphony of a Strauss waltz.

The day is done and the darkness
Falls from the wings of Night
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.

Poetry may have been the proverbial canary in the coal mine. As it muddled its way through the purple haze of the '60s drug culture, it became clear that anti-establishment ideology was manifesting itself in areas we hadn't anticipated. Meter and rhyme were being as joyfully discarded as feminist bras. Women eventually reclaimed their bras, but verse – like many other cultural traditions – would never be the same again.

In the 20th century, modernism was skillfully employed by poets like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. However, instead of being embraced as an additional means of expression, it eventually usurped traditional poetry; perhaps in the same way that secular humanism and homosexuality were cordially given a seat at the table, but eventually became giddy with power and set out to usurp Christianity and heterosexuality.

In 1985, traditional poetry was labeled "New Formalism," and the movement that called for a return to traditional poetic forms was accused of being "intrinsically feudal, right wing, and "un-American." To this day, liberals can usually be identified by their Bohemian frenzy of words, while conservatives assemble them with the algorithm of a Rubik's Cube. Sadly, in contemporary poetry, liberals rule.

(Alas, it's only a coincidence that research findings in cerebral laterality are disputing that the left rules. In "Poetry As Right-Hemispheric Language," author Julie Kane asserts that it is "the degree of right-hemispheric involvement in language...that differentiates "poetic," or "literary" from "referential" or "technical" speech and texts.)

One of the best-loved poets of the day, at least among fellow poets, is CAConrad. Poet Paul Legault says, "CAConrad's poetic practice infiltrates his entire being – with this Whitmanian-Ginsbergian anarchist-American-ness."

A 2010 Huffington Post article proclaimed, "The Greatest Muslim Poet? He's Also the Best-Selling Poet in America." It was referring to a 13th Century Persian poet named Rumi, at whose funeral the author tells us "Christians proclaimed, "He was our Jesus!" while Jews cried, "He was our Moses!" Thirteen years earlier, the "Rumi Revival" had begun as his translated books sold a quarter of a million copies, and recordings of his poems made it to Billboard's Top 20 list. New Age gurus like Deepak Chopra were riding the "anything goes" spiritual wave, offering Rumi as a "spiritual quick fix" to those with "open minds."

With writers like a 13th Century Sufi Mystic and a Ginsbergian-anarchist dominating the poetic landscape, it's no surprise that expressions of Judeo-Christian worship or American patriotism usually disqualify you in most poetry contests. While not openly opposed, elite liberal judges collect their money and file your entry in the waste can. Your best chance for acceptance is to write love poems for the planet, odes to climate change, or anything to follow the "rich tradition of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer poets" in the burgeoning field of LGBTQ poetry. If that fails, you may find your niche in atheist, anti-war, or feminist poetry.

In a country that is struggling to afford basic needs like food and medical care, enabling artistic expression necessarily takes a backseat. There will likely be even fewer outlets for poets in the foreseeable future.

Gone are the days when an aspiring poet can pen a poem, send it to their local newspaper, and feel fulfilled when their neighbors memorize it or put it on that traditional place of American honor – the refrigerator; or press a clipped copy lovingly between the pages of a treasured book. Like the toys on Rudolph's Island of Misfit toys that are never truly happy until they're loved by a child, a poem is never happy until someone lovingly recites it as they gaze at the stars.

Susan D. Harris can be reached at

© Susan D. Harris


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