04/15/2013 04:19 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2013

Poems Have a History, But do They Have a Future?

Poetry is often a tough sell to today's college undergraduates. Heck, poetry is a tough sell these days to almost anyone who doesn't read or write it professionally. Ask people to name their three favorite foods, or actors, or even novelists, and they generally respond well. Ask them to name their three favorite poets - or, harder yet, their three favorite living poets - and they generally respond with bewilderment, laughter, or silence.

Like so much else, things weren't always this way. With its origins in religious ritual, oral history, and royal celebration, poetry had evolved by the 16th century to become the most respected literary genre. Want to impress your friends and intimidate your enemies? Write a witty sonnet sequence like Sir Philip Sidney's "Astrophel and Stella" (1591), which circulated among his courtly friends like any good inside joke, or a devastating satire like John Dryden's "MacFlecknoe" (1682), which destroyed for all time the reputation of a literary rival. By the early 18th century, poets like Alexander Pope could make a full-time living producing modern translations of classics as well original verses in a variety of sub-genres. Pope excelled at mock-heroic poems, which became particularly popular after John Milton's monumental Paradise Lost (1674) raised the bar for the English epic to truly heavenly heights. The spirit of Pope's satires lives on today in the bluster of performer-pundits like Stephen Colbert.

But a funny thing happened to poetry on its way into the 18th century. It began to lose readers to a young rival genre, written in straightforward prose, which dealt primarily in stories of contemporary life: the aptly named "novel." (I wrote about its development in my last post.) At least partially as a result of such competition, poets looking to distinguish their work began turning away from longer, narrative-oriented verses and toward shorter expressions of personal feeling and observation that the novel, with its orientation toward the lives of others, couldn't match. In fact, writers began to suggest that poetry could best maintain its value precisely as a counterbalance to the hustle and bustle of modern life:

"For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. . . . When I think upon this degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation, I am almost ashamed to have spoken of the feeble endeavor made in these volumes to counteract it."

So wrote William Wordsworth in the 1800 preface to the collection of poetry he and his friend, S.T. Coleridge, had first published two years earlier. Now, keep in mind that the "multitude of causes" Wordsworth knew when he wrote about distracting entertainment consisted primarily of newspapers, novels, and melodramas. Can you imagine what he would have said about today's plethora of
"outrageous stimulation[s]," many of them frequently available 24/7 at the click of a button?

From a combination of necessity and creativity, then, poetry in the 19th century carved out a niche for itself primarily as a refuge from the business of everyday life. But the price was steep: it lost most of its audience to more immediately accessible forms of entertainment. Today, currently lists nearly 30 categories in its Books section, including "Crafts, Hobbies & Home" and "Mysteries, Thrillers & Suspense." Poetry is not one of them.

Why not? Certainly, poetry demands a different kind of attention than our other everyday pursuits. To get something meaningful out of a well-written poem, whether from the Renaissance or by one of today's many thought-provoking poets, one must be willing to linger over it, word by word and sentence by sentence. This kind of slow reading is not something most of us are used to doing, nor is it something our culture in general tends to encourage or reward. But perhaps that's precisely why poetry should still have a place at the literary table. By forcing us to slow down, good poetry encourages us to take at least a little more time to think about the world we live in, our place in it, and the language we use to describe that relationship. (Looking for a low-pressure place to try some poetry, classic or contemporary? Try the Poetry Foundation.)

Literary critics sometimes call this kind of poetic effect defamiliarization. Put simply, this is the power of language as poets use it, less to communicate information than to fascinate, provoke, or seduce. The effect of the combination of well-planned form and imaginative content that characterizes the best poetry is simply unmatched in its ability to suspend the world around us, and offer us opportunities to look at it - and ourselves - with fresh eyes. The best poetry, to echo Wordsworth, both stimulates and quenches a thirst that is anything but degrading.