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What’s Wrong with Poetry?

September 29, 2010 1 comment

 

These days, English prose and poetry are uneasy allies. On the one hand, the god of public opinion holds up prose as more accessible than poetry; that is, it relies less on learned devices such as meter and rhyme (and their gaggle of obscure offspring, such as slant rhyme and line breaks) than does prose. Prose appears to be more straightforward, relying on the writer’s natural speaking voice and diction.

But in fact prose is a relatively recent development. Most writing before say about 1500 was either poetry or what today is called prose-poetry, but in days of yore was known by such terms as blank verse and ballad. Mention these words today, however, and one is likely to get either a look of incomprehension or the humble admission that they just don’t make writers like they used to. 

 In other words, poetry is the older and, to be honest, the more popular form. Far from making writing (not to mention speaking) difficult and condescending, poetry *helps* its audience follow along with structuring devices like repetition, rhyme, and stanza breaks. A good deal of the appeal of contemporary folk and rock and roll derives from their use of lyrics that are essentially poetry.

Why has poetry fallen out of favor? Partly, at least, because the traditional forms were rejected by the intellectual elite after WWI; the informal guilds of storytellers at the pub and small, independent publishers (and self-publishers) were disappearing, taking the traditional craft of poetry along with them. Poets (and generations of poets) no longer had time to evolve, perform in intimate settings, and pass along their work.

Then God created Pound, Auden, Joyce, and Elliot, and the rest of the story is only too dreadfully familiar. It’s not that the moderns have abandoned literary standards (at least I hope they haven’t, since I’m one of them), but that they have been robbed of the vital elements of slow crafting and an appreciative, face-to-face audience. The old story themes of hard-won love and epic adventure have been consigned to the nursery and the literary limbo of matinée romances. And the mere suggestion that an aspiring writer is working in verse is enough to send any respectable publisher shrieking into the night.

Writers, inspired or monied, should take the lesson of the current vampire sagas to heart: people want stories based in old-fashioned myth and ballad, and the more structured and beautiful their words are, the more their audience will be satisfied. Poets must learn to reincorporate story elements (and above all, plot) in their work; prose writers will benefit by taking the time to make their words more than serviceable. RT

 

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