Poetry. It's rather a discredited art form, these days, enjoyed by a small group of effete eggheads with graduate degrees in Literature. Any money that may be forthcoming to modern poets is in the form of prizes set up a century ago; no one buys collections of poetry to read any more. Well, except people who write their own poetry, and we have already scornfully dismissed them.
Billy Collins' book of poetry Picnic, Lightning (Now there's a poetic title) was a best-seller when it sold 20,000 copies. To make an unfair comparison, the best-selling book of the 90s was The Pelican Brief, weighing in at 11,232,480 copies. (Grisham also had #2, The Client, which sold 8.1 million copies.) Finding exact sales figures is hard to do, unfortunately - bestseller lists are everywhere (well, several places, but prominently), but they don't generally give the hard numbers. At any rate, 10,000 copies makes for a bestselling book of poetry. You have to hit four, five times that for prose. And the top end is much, much farther away.
So poetry isn't very lucrative, and isn't well respected in the public eye. Yes, that's us hoi-polloi, not the ivory tower sorts, who would rather suck Drano through a used handkerchief than admit to reading a bestselling prose novel, much less The Pelican Brief. Luckily, fiscally they don't count. Where was I? Oh yes, poetry. The interesting thing, though, is that it used to be the bee's knees. We have all these poetry prizes precisely because people now dead were dramatically inspired by people now even more dead.
Byron, Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Hughes, Blake. Frost. Dickinson. The nineteenth century in particular gave rise to a whole galaxy of poets who were not just high school English class afflictions, but whose words touched people and spoke to their emotions in a way that prose - paced, intelligent prose - rarely did. Poetry can have power. Not just the namby-pamby power of "Oh, what a nice flower / now I shall softly die" but also violent, stirring power, the alarums of war and the hot metal of anger. Check out some of those names out there to see what I mean.
Where has it gone?
Well, the title of today's column rather gives away my opinion. Poetry has waned into a slim reed, but the stripped down wordplay that allowed for such vigorous emotion has certainly not disappeared. It's simply picked up musical accompaniment.
Today's music, by which I mean rock n' roll and its myriad offshoots, is poetry. It is. It's often nonsensical, sometimes ridiculous, but also sometimes powerful and moving like nothing short of real experience can be. Poetry was never meant to be merely a written form - to experience it solely as text is akin to never seeing Hamlet, merely reading it. Poetry requires - demands - pacing, and volume, and emotion. And singing one's poems gives them exactly that.
And it's not like the link is cleverly hidden from view. Those musicians who tend to be weepier than average seep over into written, non-musical poetry all the damn time. Jim Morrison being a prime example. Or Jewel. She sold her book of poetry, A Night Without Armor, to HarperCollins for a million dollars. It hit bestseller lists in 1999. Of course, it did so because of the exposure her other, set-to-music musings had first.
And that's it, really. It's a sword that swings both ways, too. When you read 'When We Two Parted' (Byron) or 'The Road Not Taken' (Frost) or 'Dover Beach' (Arnold), don't just read them like they were the latest Harry Potter novel. There should be music in them, in your head. Read them aloud. Sing them. Read one, then listen to the Indigo Girls or Green Day or even Guns 'N' Roses. Then read another.
You may even find you like your own music better.
- Sun Ra
Columns by Sun Ra