In 2016, the organisers of the Rose of Tralee announced that contestants would no longer be allowed to recite a poem as their onstage party piece. The explanation was that poetry was “slowing down the flow of the show”. The next year, the ban was continued, and the organisers even offered a limerick in justification:
There once was a time in the Dome
When Roses would recite the odd poem
Then times, they did change
Other things, now the rage
So we’ve asked them to leave poems at home.
Thankfully, in 2019, the ban was lifted, and one of the Roses did indeed recite a poem written by her great-grandfather.
It might seem a trivial matter, but I will admit that I felt very annoyed – even disturbed – at the episode. I can remember sitting in the parlour of my uncle’s farmhouse in Limerick as a child, watching the Rose of Tralee with my aunt and mother, eating buttered scones and drinking strong tea. Perhaps it is a quirk of memory, but I seem to recall quite a few of the Roses reciting “If I Were a Lady” by Percy French – which is an excellent comic verse, and eminently Irish to boot.
I won’t pretend that I was ever an ardent fan of the Rose of Tralee, but I’ve always liked knowing that it’s there. It’s part of the furniture of our national life, like the Munster Final or the National Ploughing Championships. And the fact that poetry was recited from the stage was a great part of the appeal. After all, how often does one get to hear poetry recited on a television programme which is also a national event? How often does one get to hear poetry recited anywhere, these days?
The little limerick the organisers put out, for all its lack of scansion and rhyme, hit the nail on the head. The times have changed, and things other than poetry are now all the rage. Or, if you want to put it less charitably, we no longer have the attention span or the patience to listen to poetry, or to read it.
Here is a question for you, reader: can you name even one poet who is living today? And, if you can name a poet living today, can you name a single poem they wrote? Or can you quote a line of any poem that they wrote?
And now, consider this: in 1869, the poet Lord Alfred Tennyson had to move house to escape the number of tourists coming to see him. His blank verse epic Idylls of the King sold ten thousand copies in the first week of publication.
The further back you go in time, the more importance verse assumes. Most of the epic literature of ancient times – for instance, the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer – were written in verse, not prose. The Canterbury Tales was a popular success in medieval England. Robbie Burns, previously unpublished, sold three thousand copies of his first book in 1787. Lord Byron’s long poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage sold five hundred copies in three days back in 1812 (“I awoke to find myself famous”), and AE Housman’s A Shropshire Lad sold eighteen thousand copies in 1918 alone.
Conservatives tend to believe in narratives of social decline, and liberals frequently dispute these. For instance, liberals will often claim that society has become less rather than more violent, citing Stephen Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature. When conservatives point to marriage breakdown or suicide as evidences of social decline, liberals will simply reply that countless couples remained locked in miserable marriages in previous generations, or that suicides went unreported.
Poetry is one of those rare cases where the decline is inarguable. Even if you claim to prefer the poetry of Adrienne Rich or Allen Ginsberg to that of Thomas Hardy or William Wordsworth, nobody could argue that poetry has not come down in the world in terms of books sold and cultural prominence.
I’m not going to write the millionth diatribe against free verse here; anybody who still can’t see that literary modernists found it necessary to destroy poetry in order to save it is beyond convincing. Even liberals are beginning to accept this; I haven’t read The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry, but I understand it is a passionate defence of formal verse.
Besides, even if the free versifiers have captured all the strategic positions in academe, the poetry publishing houses, and literary criticism, where is the dissident underground? What is stopping traditionalists from supporting proper poetry? Where are the samizdat publications that will publish rhapsodies about the beauties of nature in rhyming couplets, or heterormative love poems that can be understood without fifty pages of footnotes? And who would buy them?
Free verse has reigned for several generations now, but cultural conservatives have never cultivated an alternative. Poetry simply isn’t a priority for anyone, it seems. There has not been a major poet writing in the English language since Philip Larkin died in 1985, and he (along with John Betjeman, who died the year before) was a throwback. Who worries about this? Do conservatives worry about it? What do they actually do about it?
Why should we care about the decline of poetry, unless we happen to be poetry enthusiasts? Well, I believe (though I don’t think it can be proven) that the decline of poetry has a significance far beyond literary history.
I would argue that poetry is inherently conservative, and that it’s no coincidence that poetry has declined as society has become more individualistic, utilitarian, secular, egalitarian, and progressive.
Poetry, by its very nature, is contemplative. It lingers on its subject. It looks at it. Our modern society has become so concerned with novelty, so preoccupied with crossing boundaries and breaking barriers and “debunking”, that it’s no wonder we cannot bear to linger on anything, especially on anything old or traditional or familiar – such as a field of daffodils, or a fisherman, or a country churchyard.
It’s no wonder that we have fallen prey to what Roger Scruton termed “oikophobia” – the hatred of home, of the familiar, of the near-at-hand and traditional and ordinary. The reading public today can happily gobble up a series of fantasy novels that is thousands of pages long (especially one that brims over with deviant sex and brutal violence), but can’t bear to sit through a one-page poem. We would rather read twenty books about mindfulness than a slim volume of sonnets.
Poetry – at least, good poetry – is intrinsically conventional, rhythmic, patterned, cyclical. Rhyme and metre and stanzas give form and continuity to a poem, just as ritual and custom and tradition give form and continuity to a society. A society that respects tradition, ritual and custom is inherently more poetic than a society which is always trying to abolish them.
Has poetry gone into decline because modern society is less poetic, or is modern society less poetic because poetry has gone into decline? My theory is that both are the case – that there is a vicious circle in play.
Conservatives often insist, quite rightly, that politics is downstream from culture. But how much do we actually care about culture? Are memes really going to save us? Or is there something inherently anti-traditional and anti-conservative about the media we give our leisure hours over to today?
We are willing enough to listen to laments about millennials and their mobile phones, or about the poisonous messages of the mass entertainment media. But what if the malady goes deeper than that? What if the wrong turning came about when we decided that prose was all a healthy literary diet required, and that all a mind required of poetry was what it encountered in the classroom?
So, to my fellow conservatives, I say: read poetry. Read the same poem again, and again, and again, until it takes up residence in your memory. Recite poetry in public, even if it embarrasses your pub or dinner companions. Discuss poetry. Buy poetry. Ask editors for poetry, and congratulate them when they publish it. Parents, read poetry to your children, and buy them books of poetry. Let us all make poetry an ordinary part of life.
If we are condemned to live in a banal and prosaic society – and surely there has never been a society more prosaic than the liberal-secular-globalist-rationalist society we live in today – then we can at least keep poetry alive in our hearts, in our memories, and in our speech.
And what better preparation could we have for the longed-for day when society returns to the raw materials from which poetry is made – to patriotism, religion, chivalry, romance, tradition, folk culture – to all that is sacred and timeless and sublime?
Maolsheachlann Ó Ceallaigh is the author of the recently released book “Inspiration from the Saints. Stories from the Lives of Catholic Holy Men and Women” available from Angelico Press