Poetic Purpose

Why poetry is in school more than it seems to be outside in the world, the children haven’t been told. They must wonder.

—Robert Frost

This consideration of poetry’s formal nature and human purposes presents a paradox. If poetry is the most ancient and primal art, if it is a universal human activity, if it uses the rhythmic power of music to speak to us in deep and mysterious ways, if the art is a sort of secular magic that heightens the sense of our own humanity, then why is poetry so unpopular? Why has poetry, as so many instructors complain, become so hard to teach? Why is poetry disappearing from the curriculum at every level of education? Why has poetry gradually vanished from public discourse and the media? And, finally, why has all this happened—at least in most of Western Europe and North America—despite huge, ongoing investments from governmental, academic, and philanthropic institutions to support the creation, teaching, publishing, discussion, promotion, and preservation of poetry?

There are, of course, many reasons for poetry’s retreat from cultural life, not the least of which is the proliferation of new technologies for information and entertainment, including media that have usurped the basic modes of song and storytelling that have traditionally been the mission of literature. But there have also been intellectual and education trends that have stunted poetry’s appeal and popularity. Poetry has always played a significant role in education. It has been used for millennia at every level of instruction. In cultures as different as classical China, Imperial Rome, and Elizabethan England, poetry served as the central subject matter of the curriculum. The schools attended by Tu Fu, St. Augustine, and William Shakespeare, for example, used verse texts and even metrical composition in many subjects.

Until quite recently poetry was taught badly—at least according to current academic standards. Poetry was used to teach grammar, elocution, and rhetoric. It was employed to convey history, both secular and sacred, often to instill patriotic sentiment and religious morality. Poetry was chanted in chorus at female academies. It was copied to teach cursive handwriting and calligraphy. It was memorized by wayward schoolboys as punishment. It was recited by children at public events and family gatherings. Being able to write verse was considered a social grace in both domestic and public life. Going to school meant becoming well versed.

For thousands of years, poetry was taught badly, and consequently it was immense-ly popular. Readers loved the vast and variable medium of verse. It wasn’t a forbidding category of high literary art; it was the most pleasurable way in which words could be put together. Poetry was used in schools at least in part because it was considered more engaging than prose for children. Even in the late nineteenth century, poets such as Longfellow, Byron, Tennyson, and Kipling were international figures who outsold their prose competitors. But poetry’s existence on the pages of books, even the best-selling books, represented only a fraction of its cultural presence. Poetry flourished at the borders between print and oral culture—places where single poems could be read and then shared aloud. Poetry was read most widely in newspapers, magazines, almanacs, and popular anthologies. A poet could become internationally famous through the publication of a single poem, as in the case of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven.’ Edwin Markham’s poem ‘The Man with the Hoe,’ which dramatized the oppression of labor, was quickly reprinted in 10,000 newspapers and magazines. Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’ gave solace to millions of mourners for the dead of World War I. Critics may denigrate these poems, but the magnitude of their reception is indisputable. Poetry permeated the culture at all levels. It was read and recited by people of all classes. They may not have admired the same texts as Ezra Pound did, and they didn’t discuss verse in the manner of T. S. Eliot, but poetry played a part in their personal formation and continued to shape their imagination.

What happened? I suspect that one thing that hurt poetry was being too well taught. This claim may initially seem preposterous, but grant a moment to pursue a plausible line of argument. As the twentieth century progressed, some of the most brilliant minds in the history of English-language letters began to wrestle with the early Modernist classics. (There were parallel critical vanguards in Russia, Germany, France, and other countries.) Literary intellectuals noticed some of the ways poetic language operated, especially in the most compressed, allusive and challenging texts—works such as Eliot’s The Waste Land or Pound’s Cantos. Gradually they developed interpretive methods as subtle as the texts they analyzed. They also disliked certain aspects of their own education in poetry, especially the sentimentality and moralizing of their Victorian-era instructors. These critics strived to create a more objective, rational, and coherent way to understand and teach poetry.

In the United States, this intellectual vanguard included such critics as R. P. Blackmur, Allen Tate, Kenneth Burke, Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, and Yvor Winters. These writers developed brilliant methods of analyzing poetry as poetry, according to the intrinsic nature of the art itself, stripped of all the extrinsic factors. They brought analytical rigor, theoretical organization, and philosophical detachment to what had mostly been an inconsistent and casual—indeed amateur-ish—field. Their techniques differed so radically from traditional pedagogy that in America they were called ‘The New Critics.’

The work of these critics represented a great moment in American intellectual history. Yet their immense success also had an enduring negative impact on the popularity of poetry. This impact was felt primarily in two ways. First, the New Critics and their successors changed the way poetry was taught—first in universities and then at lower levels of education. The intellectual revolution of one generation hardened into the pedagogic dogma of another. Classroom instruction gradually narrowed to a few types of textual analysis, increasingly taught to students with limited experiential knowledge of poetry. Coursework focused on critical dissection and conceptual paraphrase of printed texts. Academic success depended on the student’s ability to replicate these forms of analysis in written work. Needless to say, this process represented a radical departure from the pedagogy of half a century earlier, which had been more eclectic, performative, and auditory. The new methods may have produced more sophisticated teachers of poetry, but they reduced the appeal of the art to most students. Ironically, the emphasis on textual analysis and critical theory also had a parochial quality. In its attempt to train everyone in the specialized techniques of professional academic study, it mistook the basic goal of literature courses in the general curriculum. The purpose of literary education is not to produce more professors; its goal is to develop capable and complete human beings.

The second impact was on the profession itself. The success of the New Critics, all of whom were poet-professors, inspired the next three generations of American scholars to focus on espousing, or at the very least consciously employing, critical methods as their means of professional advancement. Every decade brought a new wave of critical schools and techniques, eventually culminating in mostly theoretical approaches to literature. Each new method, however brilliant—and these methods often were quite brilliant—usually became more remote from the actual holistic, intuitive experience of poetry. As criticism and theory became a mandatory part of the curriculum, their presence reduced the number of classes students took in imaginative literature. (Memorization had already vanished from the classroom.) Trained in this system, students mastered complex strategies for analyzing an art in which they had little direct experience and less appetite. Theoretical fluency replaced wide reading of primary sources. Poems became texts to be deconstructed into power strategies and signifiers. Inexplicably, enrollment in literature courses began to decline.

Please understand I am not making an argument against the New Criticism, critical methods, or literary theory as intellectual disciplines. I am myself a critic and take great pride in that side of my writing. My argument concerns what happened to several generations of students, especially those who were not literature majors, when their classroom experience of poetry consisted mostly of technical analysis without being supplemented by other approaches to the art. For most students, writing a critical paper does not inspire the same lifelong affection for poetry that memorization and recitation foster. When analytical instruction replaces the physicality, subjectivity, and emotionality of performance, most students fail to make a meaningful connection with poetry. So abstracted and intellectualized, poetry becomes disembodied into poetics—a noble subject but never a popular one. As the audience for poetry continues to contract, there will come a tipping point—perhaps it has already arrived—when the majority of adult readers are academic professionals or graduate students training for those professions. What is the future of an art when the majority of its audience must be paid to participate?

No one intended the decimation of poetry’s audience or the alienation of the common reader. Like most environmental messes, those things happened as accidental by-products of an otherwise positive project. The rise of analytical criticism initially seemed an entirely reasonable and beneficial development. The time seems overdue to assess its broader impact on the art. These are unpopular ideas to offer a literary culture now made up mostly of teachers and professors. But if our deeper loyalty belongs to literature itself, rather than to our professional practices, we need to consider these disturbing trends. As Oscar Wilde once remarked, ‘There are two ways of disliking art. One is to dislike it. The other, to like it rationally.’

Adapted from http://www.thedarkhorsemagazine.com/danagioiapoetrya.html


  1. Poetry=unpopular now bc taught well (new approach)


  2. MI: NC analytical methods = – interest in poetry ed, neut tone


  3. Critical, analytical approach to poetry = unpopularity of poetry.


  4. Overemphasizing rigorous textual analysis on poetry may prevent population (non-literature majors) from enjoying poetry appreciation.


  5. MIP: Poetry becoming unpopular due to trend in educational institution. Poetry, up until recently, was badly taught and people still really enjoyed it. Poetry= universally culturally significant


Leave a Reply