ACL 1002
Studying Poetry and Poetics
Semester 1 2012
Footscray Park

Lecture week 10
History of Poetry

by Ian Syson

The History of Poetry/More properly the histories of poetry.

Looking at the history of

  • Form; how has poetry changed in its formal elements?
  • Place of poetry; social function of poetry and role of poet
  • Content; just what has poetry been about?
  • Relative popularity

I'll start with a proposition:

It would seem easy to come to the conclusion that poetry today is less popular and less viable than at any other time in its history.

  • Mainstream publishers are shying away from it in droves
  • Very hard to nominate any celebrated and important contemporary poets, (other than those whose celebration and importance is often a case of either 1) self-promotion and self-regard or 2) promotion for 'non-poetic' reasons)
  • Competition from other media and art forms for the limited spare time of potential audience.
  • It a miserable occupation. Most practising poets live in circumstances that are very close to poverty -- it's not a nourishing occupation.

The energetic performance and alternative poetry scene that exists today is no real measure. It obtains its energy from its sense of marginality and perhaps even holding the candle for poetry.

Yet I'm not sure that this represents a very different situation from any number of moments in the history of poetry.

Were we to focus on certain historical periods we would see poetry as being thought of as

  • Marginal
  • Trying to offer some hope in a hopeless world
  • being terribly difficult to get published

Throughout history, poets have devoted almost as much energy to finding a sponsor as they have to writing poetry itself.

  • patrons
  • newspaper editors
  • political bodies
  • funding bodies
  • business sponsorship

eg Dylan Thomas, in the 1940s, wrote “In my Craft or Sullen Art” recognising that he was writing for a small audience.

The poetry of WB Yeats and TS Eliot for example, written in the modernist period, often reflects this sense of the poet being alone

  • Intellectually
  • existentially

Also the poet as bit player on the margins or as suffering existential doubt

Eliot's 'Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock' concludes:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old . . . I grow old . . .                                              120
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown               130
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

This individual angst can sometimes be translated into a more genreal and cataclysmic vision

Read WB Yeats' The Second Coming

These are bleak views of the period in which the poets live -- yet are ones that seems to recur in modernist poetry.

Though perhaps poetry written immediately prior to, during, or after the first world war is bound to be bleak.

However, if we are after solitude, alienation and even despair, then we really need look no further than the romantic period (1780-1830). Wordsworth's "Daffodils", for example, is a kind of metaphor for the poet's role and the limited circle of the poet's nonetheless powerful impact.

"I wandered lonely as a cloud."

And this tradition might well begin here. This self-consciousness about poetry being written in a vacuum or for few people seems to be a post-romantic (discuss this term) notion, something that mainly exists in poetry from the 19 and 20th centuries.

Prior to this time poetry was the predominant literary form. Poetry's function had not yet been usurped by the novel and so tended to include a broader range of themes and types.

Discursive prose was an important though barely disseminated practice and creative prose (or the novel) was in its infancy.

A lot of the poetry written prior to the romantic period shows much less explicit sense of being aware of itself as poetry. This is despite the arguable paradox that it was written with greater use of what we think of as poetic devices.

This earlier poetry is also often much stronger in terms of argument, narrative and allegory.

The romantic period is the one in which in other fields is seen as a period of revolution: French, American, industrial. These bring about

  • Changes in social makeup in Britain and world-wide
  • Social degredation
  • Technological advances, especially in paper production and printing
  • Prose begins to take a hold on reading habits
  • The impulses which, in part, help found Australia

Such forces helped to produce a rupture in the world of letters and a bifurcation between poetry and prose.

The romantic period represents something of a revolutionary moment in poetry as well -- in all of the senses we are looking at today:

  • form, The shift from longer narrative forms to shorter, perhaps lyric ones I take to be the major historical shift of the romantic period.
  • content,
  • popularity, through the rise of other forms, poetry loses its hegemonic position in the literary arts
  • role of the poet: shifts from teller of public stories to the revealer of personal feelings. If we take a long view, what is the difference between the roles of Chaucer and a poet like Gwe harwood?

If we want to look at the previous 700 years, what we might identify is a gradual formal fragmentation of poetry from something like The Canterbury Tales into something like 'The Red Wheelbarrow'. From a public narrative about public narration to a wistful, oblique meditation on mundane objects.

What are some threads we could draw?

  • The mnemonic function of rigid rhyme and rhythm seems to matter less and less through time and as access to literacy, printing and books becomes gradually more universal.
  • From the almost staccato alliterative schemes in mediaeval poetry through to the red wheelbarrow with its absence of overt poetic device.
  • Breakdown of overtly narrative, allegorical and argumentative forms. Which is not to say that poetry no longer tells stories, alludes to others or makes arguments
  • The rejection of rigid poetic forms like the sonnet or the villanelle, except for purposes like irony or reflection

Now I don't want these generalisations to be taken as the whole story because there are countervailing trends.

For a start there is a whole ballad tradition which becomes important in relation to poetry during the romantic period. The romantic poets write verse which bears a strong though sometimes controversial relation to this tradition: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and poets like Robbie Burns and Rudyard Kipling are firmly placed within it.

Australian poetry of the 1890s is largely written in ballad form. Significantly, this poetry was genuinely popular, often being published in widely circulated magazines and newspapers like The Bulletin, The Worker and The Dawn.

As far back as we look we short fragmentary verse being written and today we can observe the writing of formal verse and even verse novels. Amid all the Popes or Drydens writing their grand satires and narratives in the 17 and 18C, we still have the odd Aphra Behn writing powerful poetry of personal anguish.

And amid the 20th century dominance of free verse we still can observe poets like Dylan Thomas writing in a rigid form to powerful effect.

Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that Good Night

Nevertheless, I think it is ultimately correct to see the history of poetry as a history in which formal shifts seem to have a trajectory.

I leave it up to you to wonder why.