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Where did the poets go?
Listen, my children, and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere / On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five / Hardly a man is now alive / Who remembers that famous day and year . . . (From “Paul Revere’s Ride”)
It was the schooner Hesperus / That sailed the wintry sea / And the skipper had taken his little daughtèr / To bear him company . . . (From “The Wreck of the Hesperus”)
Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State! / Sail on, O Union, strong and great! / Humanity with all its fears / With all the hopes of future years / Is hanging breathless on thy fate! (From “The Building of the Ship”)
For much of human history, literature was indistinguishable from poetry. And before there was writing, bards spoke in meter and rhyme, the better to remember their tales and to carry their listeners along. Playwrights often composed their lines in poetic form, for similar reasons. Even today, songwriters observe conventions of poetry in constructing their lyrics.
But poetry per se fell out of favor as an item of popular consumption, certainly in America, starting in the late nineteenth century. A combination of factors did it in. Innovations in printing reduced the per-page cost of producing works of literature, bringing books within reach of ordinary people. A distinctive feature of poetry is the punch it packs; novelists ramble comparatively, and the new technology let them do just that.
About this same time colleges and universities were becoming centers of research. This happened first in the sciences, but the humanities felt obliged to play along. English departments demanded sophistication rather than popularity, which was often seen as the mark of unsophistication. The more abstruse a poem, the better chance it had to please the critics.
And popular music stole much of poetry’s thunder. Economic development in America permitted more families to acquire pianos, around which people would gather to sing songs by Stephen Foster and other tunesmiths. By the early twentieth century, to the extent Americans experienced poetry, it was largely in the form of song lyrics.
And there it remains.
Need it be so?
One reason poetry was more popular in the nineteenth century than it is now is that poets wrote for popular audiences. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was something of an American Shakespeare, in that Americans learned a lot of their history from Longfellow’s poems in the same way English men and women learned their history from Shakespeare’s plays. Longfellow made Paul Revere, theretofore best known as a silversmith and engraver, into a hero of the American Revolution. With his “Building of the Ship,” Longfellow did more for the Union than almost anyone besides Daniel Webster and Abraham Lincoln.
His poems weren’t all heroic and triumphant. As the title of “The Wreck of the Hesperus” makes clear, the vessel goes down, and it takes the skipper’s daughter with it, victim of her father’s hubris. In “The Song of Hiawatha,” the great warrior’s true love, Minnehaha, dies in a bitter winter.
Edgar Allan Poe, another bestselling poet of that era, wrote in a different tone entirely. Yet his poems are as memorable as Longfellow’s, being even more compelling in rhythm and rhyme. I don’t know if high-schoolers still read “The Raven,” but the poem, though long, almost memorizes itself.
Much of Walt Whitman’s poetry was in yet another style. But when he wasn’t writing free verse, Whitman was distilling the heartbreak of millions into twenty-four well-mannered lines in “O Captain! My Captain!”
Maybe all the popular poets have become songwriters. Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his song lyrics. The words of the songs of Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, Carole King, Mary Chapin Carpenter and others stand up well as poetry. The intricate rhymes of the best rap music delight the imagination. Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” channels Longfellow directly.
But some people—maybe?—still prefer words without music. Is there a place for ballads that are simply words, that create their own music in readers’ heads? If a person were to write the twenty-first century equivalent of “The Building of the Ship” or “The Raven,” would anybody read it?
What do you think?