Article Image
Zhounan Xie

In 1821, Percy Shelley put pen to paper and composed an essay defending poetry against science, called "A Defense of Poetry." A famous line emerged, inking poets' into readers' minds as the "unacknowledged legislators of the world." A humanities major wishes that the argument would have ended then and there, yet practically two centuries later, here we are, still arguing for poetry's validity and importance. Can poetry still be relevant and great in this age? Shelley lived and wrote a long time ago. So long ago, in fact, that when he was around, women were squeezing into corsets, men were tipping their bowler hats, and they all drove around in carriages. Carriages! And here we are, 190 years later, in an entirely different world—one with the Internet, nanotechnology, and the human genome. The slowed-down, pensive world of poetry doesn't even seem to belong to the fast-paced atmosphere of the 21st century. Outside of English classes, poetry seems to be nonexistent. How can poets be the "unacknowledged legislators of the world" if it seems that no one even reads their work? And what are people missing out on when they don't engage with poetry? I turned to Columbia University's array of experts on poetry for the answers. Where are the poets? Idra Novey, the director of Literary Translation at Columbia, a program within the School of the Arts, argues that there are still great poets around today. "There are great poets in every generation," she says. "So, what are they up to? Novey has translated two books of poetry. "There is fantastic Brazilian urban poetry coming out of Sao Paulo, out of the beach culture of Rio, and also from more remote regions like the wetlands of the Pantanal," she says. "I just translated a book by a poet from the Pantanal, Manoel de Barros, who has never been part of a poetry scene. He's lived in the wetlands on his family's ranch for ninety years and has written nearly thirty books of poetry." Other contemporary poets are trying to play with old-fashioned notions of creativity. Michael Golston, an associate professor of English and comparative literature, says, "One way some contemporary poets ‘keep it ‘fresh'' is by not trying to keep it ‘fresh' anymore—‘freshness' is something of an old-fashioned idea at this point. I'm interested in Conceptualist poetry, in ‘uncreative writing', in appropriation and plagiarism." In the minds of some, the distinction between poetry and music—which has never been exact—has become even more blurred. Saskia Hamilton, the inspiration behind the Ben Folds/Nick Hornby song "Saskia Hamilton," and an assistant professor of English at Barnard, explains the connection, "A lot of great poems started out as songs. Early lyric poets such as Sappho were accompanied by the lyre. Poems have inevitably involved the eye and the ear," she says. Sara Sayed, a Fordham student, agrees. "I definitely think of rap as poetry. A good rapper plays with words in interesting ways to get across a point," she says. Steven Massimilla, an adjunct assistant professor in English and comparative literature, is a little more wary of the poeticism of music, specifically pop. "If you look at pop music and you write the lyrics down, you won't have a good time with them if you don't take out your guitar. Pop stars publish books of poetry, which are not nearly as good as their songs, but they want the gold star of high art on their report card," he says. Technology's Influence Perhaps the most unavoidable influence on contemporary poetry is technology. With the invention and expansion of the Internet and social networking sites, poetry has undergone a big change. No longer is it limited to a few poets whose poems make it to publication—self-publishing is so simple that anyone can be a poet. Over winter break, my 14-year-old sister's Tumblr, which had previously been covered with photos of Robert Sheehan, was suddenly brimming with long, heavily- commented-on poems. My peers kept angsty, teenage poetry tucked away in a diary, whereas my modern sister was putting hers forth for criticism by the angry vultures of the web. Something had definitely changed over the last decade. "Internet opened up a world of language—texts, archives, out of print books, obscure journals, blogs, email—that no one had any access to before. Poets use language to make poems. Now they have purchase on an infinite amount of it," says Golston. Massimilla pointed out another aspect of the accessibility. "There's something really great about having poems on the Internet. They have a much broader audience and stay available for a long time," Massimilla says. The technological world made poetry more accessible, but it has also inspired many contemporary poets. In Charles Bukowski's poem, "My Computer," he discusses that many people told him that buying a computer would hinder his poetic imagination. On the contrary, Bukowski concludes that his computer actually expanded it. Massimilla also adds, "There's a whole camp of poets that are interested in what you can do with poetry and technology—there's a school of interactive poetry and computer poetry." It appears that poetry is a flexible art, and has been able to adapt fluidly to technological advances. However, while poetry may have been able to make its leap into the modern era with a large audience, for many students today it is still unclear why poetry is relevant. Students are busy checking off courses, applying for internships, and finding creative ways of paying whatever bills they may have. How can poetry be useful to them? Where can they put "reads poems nightly" on their résumé? As Pragya Nandini, an Economics major at George Washington University, points out, "I read for two reasons: an entertaining story or information. And let's face it, mainly I read for the latter of the two." So what can poetry add? What Keeps People Coming Back? Erik Gray, associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, explained Shelley's version, "Poetry is the most practical, the most beneficial to humankind of any possible pursuit," Gray says. Shelley prized poetry's ability to make people question their environment and in turn consider information rather than simply repeating it. Gray adds that, "Shelley would say that words are infinitely possible because they are creations of the mind. You have no constraints. The possible worlds of literary production are infinite." "We're in a rush all of the time, and a great poem makes us pause," Hamilton says. She referenced a poem, by Adrienne Rich, called "From an Atlas of the Difficult World." "I know you are reading this poem / late, before leaving your office / of the one intense yellow lamp-spot and the darkening window / in the lassitude of a building faded to quiet / long after rush-hour. I know you are reading this poem / standing up in a bookstore far from the ocean / on a grey day of early spring, faint flakes driven / across the plains' enormous spaces around you." Poetry is a part of the everyday in this poem, yet it also works in distancing readers from the mundane—a pause, as Hamilton phrases it. Tabitha Wood, a junior in CC, expanded on the idea of poetry fitting into daily life, she says. "Poetry is reflective of how we usually think: images and concepts in brief, delineated form. Because it conforms to such a natural thought process it can be easier to understand than fully fleshed out prose." Ana Baric, a junior in CC, finds that poetry is for her, a "peek into the recognizable human condition," a connection to a greater whole. Massimilla echoes her thoughts, saying, "poetry is a lens through which we process experience." He notes that even outside of formal poetry, "people spend a lot of time writing down song lyrics and picking out birthday cards. All of these are ways of saying what would otherwise be left unsaid." For others, it is a fascination with poetry's structure that kept them intrigued. Golston says, "What poetry brings to the table that other modes of writing don't is an especially heightened attention to matters of form, to how the writing is shaped on the page or for the ear." Jenn Leyva, a CC junior, notes, "Poetry is very purposeful. Words are limited, so every word, phrase, and piece of punctuation is doing something important. It's the essence of language, distilled down to beauty." The Perennial Myth So here we are, 190 years later, in an entirely different world. Or so one would think. But take a second look: the corsets have simply been replaced with less painful versions, the hats modified to declare one's athletic allegiances more often than style, and the carriages restricted to Central Park. Apparently, we're not as distant from the early 19th century as we'd have ourselves believe. It took me a while to understand that the Golden Age of poetry that I envisioned is probably limited only to my imagination. The professors I interviewed all seemed eager to disprove the existence of such a period—Massimilla calls it a "perennial myth," while Golston says, "‘Great' is an inaccurate and irrelevant term. Who the ‘great' poets are in any generation is open to debate. It's a subjective judgment." Golston even adds that more people are reading poetry in America today than ever before. The responses of these professors hinted at a sort of temporal unity that explains why ancient Greeks and contemporary Columbia students all read poetry, an idea that reflects Ezra Pound's declaration that "all ages are contemporaneous." As more people than ever turn to writing and reading poetry, the idea that poetry doesn't fit into this world seems to be outright false. Instead, for people throughout time, poetry transcends the changing fancy of the times and reveals something much more central about the world.