The Death of Loftiness in Poetry

What follows is my subjective analysis of a statistically insignificant data set. That said, I did not conduct my experiment in search of hard-and-fast conclusions. Instead, I created a simple poll about poetry and prose titles, and asked participants what, if anything, surprised them about the results. I wanted to be surprised myself, to discover something new about how people relate to poetry. And I was.

Obviously, people got questions wrong, individually and collectively. In fact, the collective wisdom didn’t end up being that much more reliable than a coin toss. But far more interesting, and unexpected, was the difference between the answers that poets and non-poets gave about which titles they thought were poetry, and which were prose.

According to comments I received from non-poets, they tended to follow the norm, whereas poets reported a tendency to want to “poeticize” every title in the poll–imagining how every entry in the poll might make a great tile for a fascinating book of poems. What intrigues me about this is the implied contrast between the reference point poets and non-poets hold for poetry.

Looking over the answers, I notice that often when a prose title was mistaken for poetry, the title had lofty words in it. My theory is that ideas like “Beauty” (Fast Beauty) and “Death” (People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead) tricked non-poets into believing these could be titles of poetry books. You see, most non-poets stop reading poetry after they leave school. So, their reference point tends to be poems from before the post-modern era, when poetry was encouraged and even expected to touch upon lofty ideas with lofty language. For the same reasons, the most un-lofty title in this poll, Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films, got voted prose, and so did The Anger Scale.

Contemporary poets, on the other hand, have heard it all–the most disarming, banal, and surreal titles deployed in efforts to shock, or shake up, our notion of language art. In an era deeply mistrustful of lofty ideas plainly expressed, poets have danced around deeper human concerns to an extent that must seem as absurd to the outside observer as trying to conceive of some of these titles as the titles of books full of eighteenth-century Romantic verse. More than pushing the envelope of our perceptions, it confounds us altogether.

And so, the paradox of contemporary poetry is that we crave the deeper human concerns, yet deeply mistrust lofty language. Those of us reading and writing contemporary poetry struggle to reconcile these strange parameters with an endless array of tactics, many of them borrowed from prose. But the result, to most educated non-poets, must seem utterly baffling when held up against the standards of centuries past.

I believe that the radical shift in our culture that came at the end of the Second World War, when post-modernism rose to power, can be seen in the responses to this simple poll. Imagine reading some of these titles to Whitman, Keats, or Blake, and explaining that these are the titles of books of poems. The sound of their bemused, bewildered, and ultimately uncomfortable laughter is a sound that haunts our age.