Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2004 Issue

InFORMing an Audience—Poetry on the 'Net

0917

Susquehanna Quarterly ( www.susquehannaquarterly.org) is a widely respected online magazine for formalist poetry.



by Renée Magriel Roberts

To begin with a quick question, how many of you have a "favorite poem" that you can quote at least some portion of from memory? Most of you? I thought so. And I'd be willing to bet good money that in virtually every case this particular poem is rhymed and metrical. Good poetry sings to us, and memorable poetry sings very well indeed. The human brain seems to be wired for rhythm, for beat, for meter. It always has been, and this doesn't, on the evidence, seem to be changing.

So what happened? How did it come to be that the vast bulk of poetry published and reviewed and lionized in "serious" magazines and anthologies in the latter three fourths of the 20th century is poetry written in "open forms"? How did it happen that one of the core subjects of a formal education, poetry and prosody (the structure of poetry) fell by the wayside? How did we end up with vast quantities of irregular, unmelodic "verse" that (based on sales figures) nobody much wanted to read swamping all our publications and choking the popular lifeblood of the poetic impulse in the reading public?

That's a huge topic, and not one that can be easily explored in an essay of this length, or indeed of any length. Still, one thing's clear -- poetry took a strange turn in the twentieth century, and doing so it lost the confidence of its erstwhile readership. Vers Libre, Concrete Poetry, Imagist Poetry, L-a-n-g-u-a-g-e Poetry, and various other subsets of "experimental" verse became the accepted norms of poetic expression in English, with the impetus of the academic establishment and without the consent of the reading public, and poetry became a bad joke to most otherwise-educated readers. "I like to read, but I'm not good with poetry; I don't understand it," became a commonplace.

In the meanwhile, a significant core group of highly-talented poets who chose to write in relatively traditional forms and metrics were essentially pushed off to the sidelines, ignored by the academic and publishing establishment both. This was not only occurring with "form"; a certain, hugely-influential genre of traditional poetry, the Narrative Poem, was also getting extremely short shrift at the hands of the various schools of "modernism." In other words, not only were we being offered up very few ballads, villanelles, sonnets, and the like; we were no longer seeing works of the type exemplified by, say, "The Divine Comedy" or Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin", a great novel-in-verse.

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