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The Decline of Anglo-American Poetry

ISSUE:  Winter 1978
Sniffing the trees,
just another dog
among a lot of dogs. What
else is there? And to do?
The rest have run out—
after the rabbits.
Only the lame stands—on
three legs
William Carlos Williams,

It appears likely that poets in our civilisation, as it exists at present, must be difficult,” T. S. Eliot wrote in 1921. The poet’s task, he went on, is to render that civilization in all its “variety and complexity”; the results will inevitably be as various and complex as the civilization.”The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect. . . .” It has often been suggested that at the moment when the majority of serious poets began (not entirely through Eliot’s influence) to write according to this dictum, serious poetry in England and America began to lose its audience.

That is to say, when poets came to regard as their chief function the reflection in all its details of actual contemporary life—whether through symbols or direct description and whether the emphasis was on confession or the external world—poetry became paradoxically more difficult to read, and the familiar series of phenomena began: the decline in the number of original books of poetry published from year to year, the disappearance of poetry as a major cultural force, the virtual extinction of the self-supporting poet, It is curious that poets should have taken upon themselves many of the burdens of realism, in both language and content, at almost precisely the time when the traditionally realistic novel was seeking other, often more traditionally poetic modes of expression. It is even more ironic that in the process of becoming less narrowly selective in its subjects and adopting free verse and a closer approximation of everyday language as its most conspicuous formal characteristics, poetry should have become less rather than more accessible to the common reader.

Towards the end of his life, William Carlos Williams had this to say about his poetic purposes: “I’ve always wanted to fit poetry into the life around us . . . I abandoned the rare world of H. D. and Ezra Pound. Poetry should be brought into the world where we live and not be so recondite, so removed from the people. . . . This seemed to me to be what a poem was for, to speak for us in a language we can understand.” To another interviewer at about the same time, the author of Paterson sounded a rather different bugle: “I acknowledge that the difficulty of the poet’s writing is a barrier to the public. Definitely. But I say he is forced to it in the modern world—to reflect the complexity of his thinking. . . . When I see a poet who’s perfectly clear, I have to laugh. He isn’t SAYING anything.” Something, clearly, had gone wrong,

There are, of course, a variety of causes that might be adduced for the decline in the American poetic audience that seems to have been most rapid between the 1920’s and 1950’s (the period that David Perkins describes as having been dominated by “high modernism”), although it had no doubt begun by 1900.(In England, where modernism was less triumphant, the decline of audience has also been less.) Some of these, such as the fact that higher education became much more technical and less literary than it had been, have nothing to do with the practices of poets, although people educated along such lines may have been encouraged in their feeling that poetry had nothing important to say to them by the privateness and obscurity of so much modern verse. The claims of poetry to be the best source of knowledge about human nature and experience came to seem unconvincing to most people in the age of the social sciences, whose collective name at least carried the promise of greater system and rigor. Poetry came more and more to seem, in Gatsby’s phrase, “merely personal,” inherently a private matter of no real importance. Its use of common language at a time when every field of knowledge took pride in its own jargon merely confirmed this suspicion.

During the same period that changes in the educational system were transforming the outlook of the highly educated, equally important shifts were occurring in the emotional and connotative values of the language, of which poets were equally guiltless. For while Pound and Eliot were laboriously engaged in purifying the dialect of the tribe, that dialect was being increasingly corrupted by the manipulative usages of advertising and politics. One result was a heightening of skepticism towards certain kinds of abstract or emotional words that poets had traditionally relied on.”Poetic language,” as S. I. Hayakawa sagely observed in 1949, “is used so constantly and relentlessly for the purposes of salemanship that it has become almost impossible to say anything with enthusiasm or joy or conviction without running into the danger of sounding as if you were selling something.” How can the poet write feelingly about green fields in spring if a large part of the audience half-consciously associates them with toilet paper? How talk affectingly about love to any but the most unsophisticated when love is the staple of advertising for everything from children’s toothpaste to Geritol? Or freedom and country in an era of televised wars and political campaigns? The result, according to Hayakawa, is that “There are no poets today—not even Robert Frost—who can communicate with as large a portion of the literate public as Tennyson and Longfellow did in their time.” Hayakawa seems to think not only that no poet of any sophistication can use traditional symbols with the ease that was possible a hundred years ago, which is true, but also that sales-resistance to such symbols has destroyed their appeal, which is much less true. The irony of such poets as Auden and Richard Wilbur was a constructive attempt to avoid what seemed to be a culture-wide commercialized sentimentality and thereby resist the total conquest of public discourse by institutions whose sole interest in it was as a medium of manipulation. But people who lacked the cultural resources or experience to resist being manipulated naturally did not understand this kind of irony, and it is hardly surprising that the sort of contemporary poetry that appealed (and appeals) to them was precisely the sort that manipulated most deliberately—that was, in effect, a product of the world of advertising. So the elements of the poetic audience grew ever further apart as the total size of that audience declined.

It is doubtful, however, that the demands of the educated audience changed nearly so much as the practice of serious poets. Nor are the much-mentioned difficulty and pessimism of so much modern verse really the fundamental problem. The fact that it is difficult in unprecedented ways—that learning to cope with Donne does not greatly help one to cope with “The Waste Land,” the Cantos, or the work of David Jones— is more significant and points to what may be the most important fact about much modernist and post-modernist verse: it is simply not what the common reader, whether high-school dropout or university graduate, has been led for many centuries to regard as poetry. It is highly probable that serious poetry has alienated its audience in large part because some traditional ideas about its forms and functions have, to put it mildly, gone out of fashion with 20th-century poets—that it should illuminate rather than simply mirror experience; that it should discriminate those aspects of experience which are important from those which are trivial or transient; that while it may be difficult, it ought not to be pedantic or obscurely private; and that its language and structure are more formal than those of prose. Readers of William Heyen’s interesting American Poets in 1976, a collection of essays and recent poems by 29 representative figures, will, it is fair to say, find these attitudes in short supply, as they have increasingly been since about 1915, when Ezra Pound formulated his rules for the imagistic poem. Modernism in literature contained within it the tacit assumption that human experience in the 20th century is largely discontinuous with that of the past and can be rendered only through radically new artistic structures and ideals. The failure of modernist poets from Pound and Eliot through Williams, Lowell, and Mr. Heyen’s 29 to reach more than a small fraction of their proper audience suggests that this highly debatable assumption has not been shared by many readers. The result has been a demoralized solipsism that is one of the more depressing features of contemporary American poetry.(“I’ll never have an audience of even 50 people who truly care about my poems,” Mr. Heyen complains in his book.”. . .all I can hope to do is write poems that please me.”)

That such a difference of outlook between poet and reader is at the root of the problem is indicated by a peculiar fact that most literary commentators seem to have overlooked: despite presumed competition from prose and electronic forms of entertainment, poetry written on and for the lowest levels of literary sophistication continues to flourish today. Rod McKuen, a few similar poets such as Lois Wyse, and the authors of popular song lyrics (than which nothing could be poetically more conservative in structure and content) are rich and famous, as adulated as medieval troubadours in what most critics regard as sub-literary circles. Indeed, McKuen’s publishers claim preposterously that he is “the bestselling and most widely read poet of all times,” Further, they add somewhat anti-climactically, “he is the bestselling living author writing in any hardcover medium today.”

Even allowing for the pardonable delirium of a publisher who has seen poetry pay, McKuen has probably sold more books than any other 20th-century American or English poet: something over ten million in the six years preceding the publication of his 13th collection in 1975.(It is a revealing sign of the times that in the face of such evident prosperity, his blurb-writer should administer the coup de grace to any doubts about McKuen’s eminence by adding that “His poetry is taught and studied in schools, colleges, universities, and seminaries throughout the world. . . .” In fact, while his books sell well to undergraduates, his poems are included in few anthologies; the most comprehensive and academically favored collection of modern verse, that published by Norton, does not mention him.) McKuen’s verse is what popular poetry has been since the time of Martin Tupper: easily understood on first reading or hearing, stale and conventional in its phrasing and imagery, heavily sentimental, and filled with uncomplicated messages about life.(It is worth noticing, in the light of Hayakawa’s thesis, that McKuen came to poetry after writing psychological-warfare scripts during the Korean War.) Practically all of it is about love or nature. He produces approximately a book a year.

It is not, therefore, the uneducated or the half-educated who have stopped reading or otherwise consuming poetry; it is precisely the literate and sophisticated—practically all of them, that is, who are not professional students of literature. No doubt “popular” poetry has always commanded a larger share of the total audience than that which caters to the more discerning; but the present situation, in which serious poetry has virtually no audience at all outside the English departments, is unprecedented. This state of affairs demands more thorough examination than it has yet received, despite the fact that the investigator is forced into so many risky areas of conjecture and supposition about an audience whose only certain characteristic is its disappearance.


Poetry, unlike the novel, has never been a genre associated with a single social class. Different social classes, however, have always had different kinds of poetry catering to their different interests, tastes, and levels of sophistication.(It is obvious that the notion of class as defining levels of literary taste is an approximation at any period and becomes less satisfactory as we approach the present.) Regardless of the level of sophistication for which it was intended, however, almost all non-satirical poetry written before 1800 dealt with one or more of four broad areas in human experience: love, war, religion, and external nature. Around 1800 Wordsworth succeeded in adding a fifth: nostalgia for childhood. The efforts of many of his successors to demonstrate that all human experiences are equally fit subjects for poetry (“We will talk of everything sooner or later,” boasts Robert Creeley in Mr. Heyen’s book), and at the same time to act on his assertion that the language of poetry should be “a selection of language really used by men,” have clearly failed to convince a large public. It would seem that in the eyes of their alienated readers, most poets of the last 50 years have ceased to render significant shared or sharable experiences in an inspiring or illuminating way, instead becoming either the documenters of a fragmented world or the players of trivial word games (“concrete poetry” being the reductio ad absurdum).

In addition, they have largely abandoned heightened language and artificial meters in favor of everyday words and prose rhythms, a thing which Wordsworth may have advised but was too sensible to do. Since meter is the most obvious structural characteristic of all traditional poetry in English, the extent of its disuse today is surprising. Despite the fact that only three indisputably major figures in English have habitually used free verse—Whitman, Pound, and Eliot—it is uncommon today for a serious poet to use anything else, and those who do write in traditional meters, like Edgar Bowers, generally feel called upon to apologize for their backwardness. Only two poets in Mr. Heyen’s selections use meter in any rigorous way; five more sometimes approximate it. Robert Frost in a famous exaggeration compared writing free verse to playing tennis without a net; he did not add that such a game might be both tedious and confusing to watch.”The language is worn out,” announced William Carlos Williams, a much more influential figure among recent poets.”I propose sweeping changes from top to bottom of the poetic structure.” The questionable assumption that traditional English meters have been exhausted, and the even more dubious one that they should be replaced by the rhythms of everyday speech, have been dominant almost since the moment Pound began denouncing iambic pentameter. The persistence of rhyme and meter in poems written for children is a noteworthy survival and, no doubt, one reason why so many adults refuse to accept free verse as real poetry.

To blame the public for being old-fashioned in its demands, or for having low tastes, is an inadequate response to such a striking literary phenomenon as the disaster that has befallen poetry in this century. It is obvious that the people who have made Rod McKuen such a comfort to his publishers show abysmal taste, but it is also arguable that McKuen flourishes in part because he has little living competition— because people who make traditional demands on poetry really have few alternatives. To complain, as some modern poets and critics do, that the contemporary public (educated or not) wants Victorian kinds of “authoritative” poetry is possibly a more illuminating comment. The relative popularity of Sir John Betjeman in both England and America suggests that a large public does like verse which has rhyme and meter—the accepted forms by which language in English poetry has been heightened, set apart from that of prose, and made memorable—and which energetically presents a clear point of view, though the message need not (as we all by now know it does not) exhaust the work. It is doubtful that at any time in the past many people have read poetry mainly for esthetic pleasures; nor did any major literary critic before the late 19th century suggest that they should. Whether or not they actually believe or do what poets tell them, most people have always expected poetry to tell them something about life, in lines that stick in the mind. To ridicule this demand because it has sometimes inspired pompous verse is to dismiss one of poetry’s major historic functions,

Both the kitchen-sink realism of so many contemporary poets and its opposite, the Wildean view that art has no relations to truth and teaches nothing, are equally violations of what both the educated and the uneducated have always demanded of poetry, My impression is that relatively few poets today have altogether abandoned the ties between poetry and truth, although the modesty of poets’ claims about the social impact of their art is probably greater than it has ever been. In contrast to Shelley’s conception of poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world, most living poets in England and America would probably agree, however ruefully, with Auden’s humbler assertion that “poetry makes nothing happen,” Like the insistence on realism of detail, however, this attitude can be seen as representing a failure of confidence and purpose on the part of those poets who espouse it. Perhaps the most striking impression one gets from Mr. Heyen’s, 29 essays is their authors’ affectation of ordinariness, of being average confused citizens.(In this unsurprising reaction to alienation, we find Williams once again a leader.) Creeley, in many ways the most instructive, complains about “the authoritative poetry of my youth.” But as nostalgic critics are always reminding us, the poetry of Tennyson and Kipling did make things happen; so, in all likelihood, did that of Yeats, who feared in later life that he had aroused to arms “certain men the English shot.”

The detailed documentation of society or the self is a task that can be most adequately undertaken by prose, film, and television. Poets are expected to make sense of life; if they find it in fragments, they must not leave it that way. To do so is an abdication of duty and a failure of the shaping imagination, as nearly every poet from Homer to Chaucer to Keats would have accepted.(So would the Eliot who gave us the Four Quartets, which atone for a great deal.) In this minimal sense, at least, poets are still expected to be legislators. The two most impressive 20th-century poets, in this respect as in so many others, were probably Yeats and Frost, both of whom grew to poetic maturity shortly before the rise of modernism and both of whom produced their best work in defiant rejection of its major assertions about the nature of poetry. No discerning reader has ever taken Frost’s New England or Yeats’s Ireland for real countries. Both are nations of the mind, conceived and presented with a vividness and coherence that make them illuminate the less realized countries that lie round about us. Both poets had large audiences on all levels of sophistication except the very lowest.

Realism in imaginative literature was a fashion that became a dogma among some writers and critics in the 19th century. It is probable, however, that the reading public’s appetite for it came to be greatly overestimated. Such hunger for it as exists has been largely satisfied since the 18th century by prose fiction, a genre which has little in common with poetry. Because the novel became prominent rather suddenly, at a particular time, its creators were free to experiment with it and impose on it such qualities as they wished, subject to the tastes of a largely middle-class audience which wanted, among other things, a celebration in detail of its own hitherto largely unrecorded life. It is nonetheless worth noting that even in fiction, realistic modes are far less popular—and probably always have been—than such nonrealistic ones as the crime story, the romantic fantasy, the science-fiction novel.

That novelists have been free to produce such a variety of sub-forms, each with its own set of elaborate conventions, is an indication of the room for experimentation that a new and popular literary genre may offer its practitioners. Freedom to experiment within such broad limits has never existed for poets who wished to keep an audience, however, simply because poetry has existed longer than literacy or the modern world. The public has known for so long what poetry is, and what it is for, that the efforts of modern poets who wished to adapt it to what they saw as the needs of modern civilization have met with little popular enthusiasm, Pound, Eliot, Auden, and their successors have largely had their way on English-language poetry in the last half century—the modern poems which are taught in universities (pace McKuen) and discussed in critical journals are almost entirely according to their specifications—but at the cost of alienating most of the audience that existed for serious poetry at the turn of the century, and without creating a new one, except for the temporarily captive student.

Since the levels of taste represented by popular poets like McKuen are likely to be outgrown by anyone of normal intelligence, the existing poetic audience today is probably younger than it has ever been. Whereas a sensitive late-Victorian teenager might have graduated from Henley and Newbolt to Hardy and Housman, his present-day equivalent has nothing to move up to that he is apt to recognize as poetry unless he majors in English at a university; he is therefore almost certain to stop reading poetry, or at least contemporary poetry, by the age of 30, unless his mental development is arrested at an earlier age. The great-grandchildren of the people who bought the works of Tennyson, Browning, and Longfellow do not, most of them, buy any new works of poetry today. Whether their great-grandchildren will buy any may depend on whether poets in the next generation or two can throw off the dated remains of modernism and return to a more traditional conception of the forms and functions of poetry without simply producing parodies of the poetry written in previous centuries. It should be possible—it should always have been possible—to produce a 20th-century poetry that was recognizably different from that of the 19th without abandoning what the audience had always been led to believe poetry was. To say that the 20th century required the literary discontinuities that the modernists imposed upon it is to exaggerate grossly the differences between human nature and civilization in this century as against all previous ones.

* Such freedom may be bought at the price of eventual obsolescence, however. The consensus of American publishers at a recent conference was that the “literary” novel is on the way out as a commercial proposition.”Most fiction readers are turning out to be not lovers of fine writing but lovers of a good story instead,” according to Coda, a writers’ magazine.”The medium doesn’t matter to them.” Since lyric poetry is not directly competitive with other media (except perhaps for the reader’s time), it should be immune to this sort of technological displacement.


In its early days as a valiant purveyor of modernism, Poetry magazine carried on its cover a quotation from Whitman: “To have great poets, there must be great audiences too.” A major failing that unites almost all American poets from Pound to Heyen is their lack of perceptiveness about the real or potential audience. Pound’s quest for the ideal reader who could understand both Greek and Chinese and who also knew the smallest details of the poet’s private life was a dead end, and an ironic one for a poet who had once preached the use of everyday language and materials. Instead of the two-level public—us and them—that modernists came to assume, it might be more accurate and fruitful to posit four or five levels, several of which are worth aiming at. The partly philistine audience of a Tennyson could never have been as potent a source of demoralization to the poet as having virtually no audience at all.

The probable desire of readers and potential readers of poetry for coherence, memorableness, and even inspiration ought not to be dismissed as escapism or superficial optimism. It may on the contrary be a desire for help in defeating a perceived malaise—a desire for literature that transcends or illuminates the ills of modern life rather than literature that helplessly mirrors them.”I will friend you, if I may, / In the dark and cloudy day,” wrote Housman, who had a large audience, in the poem that summed up the purposes of his art. That art was for the communication of exceptional experience, perception, and emotion, all together, in language that immediately signaled itself to the dullest reader as distinct from prose. Such a promise might have been made, although in different ways, by both the sophisticated and the popular poetry of the past. Today the only large body of verse that has apparently been faithful to traditional conceptions, and has therefore kept its audience, is the least sophisticated. Insofar as serious artists will not provide such rewards, the audience will naturally either disappear or gravitate to bad art—to pulp fiction, to the half-hour television programs that are the major form of drama in our time, to rock music and Rod McKuen. To treat this situation merely as proof of bad taste blinds one to the fact that it is also evidence of paralysis or abdication among serious artists.

Writing recently in the Hudson Review, Wendell Berry attributes that paralysis in large part to what he calls the “specialization” of contemporary poetry. Despite the more political poetry of the 1960’s, he declares, “Poetry remains a specialized art, its range and influence so constricted that poets have very nearly become their own audience.” Poets, he goes on, have cut themselves off from both the traditions of their art and the world of ordinary experience.”Isolated by the specialization of their art—by their tendency to make a religion of poetry or make a world out of words, and by their preoccupation with the present and new—poets of modern times seem to run extreme occupational risks.” What he misses, I think, is the paradox that I have been talking about—that the privateness and lack of power that we both complain of has some of its roots in sterile forms of realism, in the aspiration to represent the modern world and what was presumed to be the modern self more faithfully than poetry had done before. Pound, the early Eliot, Williams, the later Lowell—all would have subscribed to such an ideal, though Wallace Stevens would have been more skeptical. It is a sad fact that, for the last 60 years or so, the waste land really has looked to most poets like the promised land.

It might be argued against either Berry’s indictment or mine, of course, that to subsume all or most modern poetry under such a series of generalizations is to ignore its variousness (“healthy variety” to those who like it, “fragmentation” to those who do not). And indeed, an age in which there are no longer any generally accepted standards of poetic taste or merit will inevitably produce a great variety of poetic intentions and achievements, some of them admirable. Beneath their varied masks, however, most of the dominant practitioners of modernist and contemporary American poetry have been remarkably similar in their guiding assumptions about the purposes of their art in the 20th century. Since I began with a quotation from T. S. Eliot about those purposes in which he spoke as a champion of the modern, it seems reasonable to end with another, in which he now (1935) finds himself the defender of embattled tradition against some of the same assumptions he had earlier encouraged: “For the reader of contemporary literature is not, like the reader of the established great literature of all time, exposing himself to the influence of divers and contradictory personalities; he is exposing himself to mass movement of writers who, each of them, think that they have something individually to offer, but are really all working together in the same direction. . . . There never was a time so completely parochial, so shut off from the past.”

  1. The question of whether there is an inherent decline of the poetic in the 20th century due to increasingly scientific (or pseudo-scientific) ways of looking at things is considered at length by Theodore Roszak in Where the Wasteland Ends(New York, 1972), especially in chapter 5.
  2. Anyone who teaches literature to undergraduates knows that many of them regard Bob Dylan and John Denver as the most important contemporary poets. Alas, there are plenty of faculty members who encourage them in this belief.


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