The great age of poetry has passed us, so it seems. People do not read and revere poets as they did in the past. There are no more like Lord Byron to repulse or inspire us; there are not the lyrical poets like Wordsworth to lift our souls to grand plains of vision. The social challenge of someone like Blake and the incisive examination of culture by T.S. Eliot have all seemingly faded from view.
Poetry seems like it resides in the backwater of fading university courses, in the edges of school English curricula and in esoteric groups who clutch on to its precious words. One could even say that the word ‘poetry’ has taken on something of the pejorative in the minds of some people.
But it is not poetry that has changed, it is the world; it is society and the whole way that people communicate and explore ideas. We live now in those desperate pockets of time between all that we do in this digital, connected, online and frantic world, where there is not the time for the reflectiveness of poetry and the drip, drip of meaning that takes time to savour and unravel.
This world is a literal world of digital discourse where imagery is sublimated and the nuances of language have all but surrendered to practicality. The social media, the text message, the email have all reified the rapid read and the economy of language. Getting to the point is more important than getting to the meaning. Yet, more than ever, it is the meaning that we need in a changing and challenging world where who we are becoming as a species and what we actually are no longer entirely clear.
So, am I despairing of the future of poetry and of the place of poets in our literary and literacy landscape? By no means. We cannot go back to the leisurely age (the racist, sexist and classist age, I might add) of the past. We can only move forward with our love of poetry and our desire to see it survive and transmogrify in this transient digital age. What I see, or perhaps what I choose to see, is a new disposition to the way poetry is communicated and accessed.
So what might this new disposition of poetry for a digital age look like? For one thing the online digital world offers the possibility of poets emerging who may not have emerged before. No longer do the whims of publishers and the tastes of established raconteurs determine who can put it out there, so to speak. For all its faults and losses, the digital age shifts the control over authorship from the establishment, with all its controls over writing and the author function, to a more open and enterprenerial platform.
For another, the old can become the new. Where poetry once stood on the dusty shelves of libraries in fading paper volumes, often unread and unseen, they can now emerge in new online digital libraries, ready to be discovered, read again, enjoyed and repositioned into other innovative forms of digital culture. What can then be understood is that poetry has as much to say to this digital age as it did to times long past.
In fact, importantly, it can have something to say to a much larger reading audience who have transcended the once entrenched boundaries of class and what was conceived as high art and culture. You see, despite genuine questions about who we may be now as a species in the light of digital communications, technological innovations and emerging artificial intelligence and robotics, we experience the world as corporeal beings and look for meaning in the world, just as humans have done for thousands of years. It is to this experience and this meaning that poets speak.
Finally, the proliferation of digital content in the late 20th century and into the 21st century has brought with it links that did not exist to the same extent as in previous centuries of human existence. For instance, the link between poetic verse and popular grassroots music culture has and is still emerging as a digital phenomenon. Hip Hop and Rap, for instance, have shifted the boundaries between what could be conceived as traditional poetic forms and what can now be taken as poetic forms in popular culture. Could it be that the new poets of the digital age are musical poets or performance poets and that they have a significant place in the vast sea of poetic expression that has stretched across the eons of time from the ancients?
Perhaps I am wrong that the great age of poetry has past. Perhaps it was never a great age but merely one age among emerging ages. Whatever their form and proclivity, words still live, and so do the possibilities of words for expressing what is important about being human and finding meaning in the fragmentation of contemporary existence. And in the living of words in this new digital age, so does poetry live.