Is poetry in decline?

A century ago poetry was a prominent part of mainstream popular culture – widely published, read, memorised, recited, and discussed. Even forty years ago many newspapers and magazines (not just of a literary kind) were still publishing large amounts of poetry. It was also broadcast frequently on radio programs.

How many people in Australia now read poems? According to a report published this year, based on a survey by Macquarie University researchers in partnership with the Australia Council, 9.2% of respondents (evenly distributed across the country and across age groups) ‘enjoy reading poetry these days.’ However, that figure includes those who read poems to children, so the proportion of adults choosing this genre for their own personal enjoyment is likely to be much smaller.

Another recent Australia Council report, drawn from its latest National Arts Participation Survey, found that a surprisingly high 14% say they are are readers of poetry – though details about the reliability of this piece of research (e.g. sampling method and size) are not clear.

At any rate there’s undoubtedly an accelerating decline in the reading of poems. The trend in Australia is probably much the same as in the USA, where the percentage who had read poetry at least once in the previous year fell from 17% in 1992 to 6.7% in 2012. It’s now about half as popular as knitting. Those stats come from an American Census Bureau survey, summarised in an article in the Washington Post which also remarks that the volume of poetry-related Google searches was five times higher a decade ago than it is now.

What’s behind poetry’s decline? Has it simply moved into other genres – into pop music lyrics, or into the shapely rhythms and imagery of some prose work? Many novels contain passages in which the language has an unforgettable poetic quality: think of the opening sentence of Hartley’s The Go-Between or the final sentence of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. (Reviewers have described my own fiction as ‘poetic,’ and I’ve applied the term to Jim Crace’s Harvest.)

Have readers have moved away from poetry because it seems ‘ever more private, idiosyncratic, and withdrawn’ – to quote an American critic who finds little to admire in the work of celebrated contemporary poets?

Or is poetry simply adapting to new publication arrangements? While the once-familiar single-author slim volume of poems is a threatened species (some longtime leading poetry publishers like Salt in the UK have abandoned it, and some booksellers won’t stock it), optimists such as Billy Mills point to the current viability of ‘a mix of online, performance and print, with each supporting the other in a new model of publishing’ – where cheaply produced collections are sold mainly online or at performance events sponsored by small groups.

An example that has just come to hand is the anthology Ear to Earth, published by Central Coast Poets and containing selected entries from this year’s Henry Kendall Poetry Award competition.

The judge was Jean Kent, a distinguished writer, who says in her foreword to the book that, in choosing winners, she looked first for poems ‘that would immediately delight and surprise’ her. ‘Sometimes,’ she continues, ‘this happened because the voice of the poet was both assured and beguiling, but if a poem was to remain strong in its impact through many readings – which is what judging entails – the poems needed to have a high level of craft as well as a genuinely individual voice. All of the poems I’ve chosen for prizes or commendations have this mysterious magic: they have important things to say, and they do so in language that is memorable.’

Nearly 400 poems were submitted, so I’m happy that mine was given a special commendation. In her remarks on it, the judge mentioned ‘its powerful image of an osprey’ and the way the poem’s ‘firm, unflinching voice…memorably captures the raw pain of grief.’ (Close readers of my novels may have noticed that an osprey appears in each of them.) Here’s the poem:

Ian Reid | So Long

1.

Things that hook their talons in memory’s gut
after deep-diving down a shaft of years
are not like a standard relic or mere leftover

such as his musty coat, his yellowing silk scarf,
those books all foxed and boxed, the dry fountain pen,
his fading letters in a hand as firm as ever.

Reminders are random now, like this one,
startling, obliquely barbed: away up there
on a high roof ridge, scanning the marble river,

an osprey crouches. Its white-hooded head
could be a cowl – an executioner’s
or even a victim’s. Raptors know how to sever

a lifeline suddenly, plummeting to snatch
the quarry hidden under a samite surface,
slice it apart and savour every sliver.

2.

As far as I know
my father doesn’t know
that he’s long dead.

Though his deadness now
is the main thing known about him,
these days only a few are left who know it.

I do. My sisters do. That’s about it.
After so long, others who used to know
have – or have been – forgotten.

His death was quick
as the stoop of an osprey
but his deadness goes on, long and slow,

travelling with me farther along the track
towards my own unknowing.
So long Dad, so long.

9 thoughts on “Is poetry in decline?

  1. Much to comment on here, Ian. For the moment, a shame you didn’t get to the poetry installation in the Fremantle Festival early this month. Organised by Jennifer Kornberger with assistance from Hort Kornberger and 22 local poets, it had 2 ‘sell-out’nights. Of course the audience was a different format than usual – won’t go into it at present. But it certainly showed a hunger for poetry as spoken word rather than intellectual pursuit.
    Much also to comment on your poem. Watching the unwinding of memories from one’s own parents is painful. I’ve been amazed at how quickly knowledge and remembrance has been withdrawn from my father since his physical presence faded out in 1978. What a long time that is to be without him.

  2. Thank you, Trisha. Good to hear that the poetry sessions in Fremantle generated plenty of enthusiasm. There is indeed still an active performance scene for poets all around the country, even if a wider audience is diminishing. An example is the fact that “Friendly Street Poets” (which I co-founded in Adelaide 42 years ago with Andrew Taylor and Richard Tipping) is still going strong – monthly readings, regular publications, etc.
    What you say about the “unwinding of memories” is sadly all too true. I’m glad my poem has some resonance for you.

  3. loved the second verse Ian, was not sure of the first verse until I had read the second but all became clear…Dorothy

  4. Your comment is gratifying, Dorothy – thank you. That’s what I hoped for: that the second part would take a reader back to the first.

  5. Your poem is rekindling a long-abandoned love of poetry. Weaving an osprey into the memories of your father is both skilful and fitting.

  6. I’m very behind the eight-ball with these remarks, but however…

    I think you’ve fit the judge’s bill very well…your rhythms are tight but worn lightly, while your metaphors and images remain vivid and compelling.

    The shift from a formal to a conversational style in the two parts works well, too. It shows that there is a deep philosophical aspect to this phenomena, as well as an everyday, familial abjectness that is nonetheless very personal.

    The “so long” refrain reminds me of Simon & Garfunkel’s “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” (complete with Simon’s cheeky, impatient interjection of “So long, already!” at the end.)

  7. Thanks, Glen – it’s good to have these appreciative comments from someone whose own writing blends formal and conversational rhythms so skilfully.

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