poetryLitterateur and environmentalist Gia Coturri recently ran a stimulating post on Policymic.com entitled “Is Modern Poetry Too Complicated For Modern Readers?”

There she argued that, although “superficially, modern poetry is simpler” than its traditional rhymed and scanned antecedents, it has inherent difficulties that keep it from being more popular with modern readers.

“There’s a lot more to it than grammar,” she insists. “Modern poetry frequently draws on academic references that make it difficult for non-graduate students to understand what is happening … It’s easy to feel helpless when approaching a poem like ‘The Waste Land,’ because most of us don’t have all of these references at our fingertips.”

In the case of certain Modernist poetry, she’s undoubtedly right. What’s more, in some cases that difficulty was cultivated in a project with definite political dimensions to, in Coturri’s words, “make it seem like poetry is only for elites who have the time to unravel complex mythology.” No one would say that of Robert Frost, or William Carlos Williams’s red wheelbarrow, of course, but for many poets, it’s absolutely true.

Except it no longer is. Thanks to the Internet, all of us now have all those references literally, instantly at our fingertips. We don’t even need to open a book any more. Democracy and dissemination have defeated difficulty, if you like.

There are many other reasons for the poor public reception of modern poetry, and arguably, many other things that need to be put right. But I’m glad that, because of the Internet, difficulty of reference is no longer one of them. And the Ezra Pound-style project of modern poetry as a rarefied elite pursuit to be enjoyed on the top storey of the ivory tower by the dictator and his court poet, while the proletarian Molochs toil below, has been toppled for good.


  1. I used to read more poetry but have fallen out of the habit: and I love the works of TS Eliot even if I miss a few references.

    I think a reason why poetry is waning is the decline of interest in language, imagery, and ideas in favor of pure story. Few novels are written as poems.

  2. You are right, Greg. Pure story is trumping imagery.
    Because poetry requires a certain effort to interpret, the masses will never flock to it.

    The truth is: they will always prefer reality shows and inept Youtube videos.
    Cheap laughs wins over reflexion almost everytime.

  3. Poetry was developed as a mnemonic device; that’s why it scans and rhymes. Take away the rhyme and the metre and you simply have chopped-up prose. Most modern ‘poems’ are no more memorable or interesting than the shopping lists they usually resemble.

  4. @Jon

    I have to disagree, the great modern poets like Eliot, Pound, and Williams don’t read as if they were chopped up prose. You can’t always concatenate the lines into something normal sounding.

    That said, there are plunty of half-baked poets manqué who write exactly as you describe.

  5. But to enjoy a poem which relies on a variety of references (or echoes) requires you to have those references already in your head when you encounter the poem. Otherwise you don’t even know what it is you’re supposed to be looking up. It becomes a stultifying exercise in analysis rather than an aesthetic experience.

    I agree with Jon Jermey and think rhyme and metre are strongly underrated these days. I’m a big fan of the villanelle.

  6. True, Rhiannon, but a quick refresh doesn’t hurt. And above all, it’s great to have them just a link away, instead of ploughing through the reference shelves as in the past. Besides, a poem is almost by definition something that needs, and deserves, to be read at least twice. And second time around, it’s all there.

    I’m also a huge fan of form, though. You don’t see rappers or pop music in general abandoning rhyme or metre, and song lyrics are the closest we have now to how the public traditionally encountered poetry. The abandonment of rhyme and metre for half-digested reasons somewhat related to Whitman’s barbaric yawp and Pound’s call to make things new strikes me as a huge mistake – have both, already! I’d always read free verse with interest, but never feel that I shouldn’t read rhymed and scanned verse because it’s somehow old-fashioned, elitist, etc. See how far you’d get trying to convince a rap artist that his rhymes are elitist …

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