2 abr. 2008

Discussions of the popularity of poetry have always confused me. Doesn't a lot depend on what is meant by poetry and by popular? A few categories to start out with:

(1) Poetry rock stars.

These are popular poets like Byron, Lorca, and Ginsberg in their respective periods of greatest fame. They seem to transcend normal ideas about poetry through the force of personality. Voznesensky.?

(2) Cultural icons.

These are the Robert Frosts and Walt Whitmans and Tennysons. Poets who stayed around enough to become iconic, but in a less rock star kind of way. The good gray poets. Longfellow.

(3) Self-destructive geniuses

These are the Plaths and Dylan Thomases. (Some overlap with rock stars.)

(4) Populists

These are poets who are popular because they are more or less populist. The Vachel Lindsays, Mary Olivers, of the world. They are never quite as popular as the rock stars.

(5) The poet famous for extrapoetic reasons

The one famous poet from a particular country, read only in translation. The political dissident who gets famous without the poetry being read.

There are wildly popular poets of all these categories in the 19th and 20th centuries. There really is not popular poetry at all before that (in the sense that I mean) because popularity implies the media and a reading public. Alexander Pope was the first poet who actually made money by selling to the public, I think. Also one of the last to do so (ha!). I don't think Wyatt was interested in popularity.

There were other modes of "popularity" before, of a different sort. For example, anonymous poetry actually of the people themselves. Poetry identified with the national culture of a particular place or time (Dante). But the debate over poetry's popularity has to be framed very carefully. It always seems that poetry is popular somewhere else, or some time else, but when? When Voznesensky filled stadia? When Ginsberg's Howl was printed and reprinted (now in other words)?

The golden age of poetic amateurism, when everyone wrote poems and published them in newspapers is ... now. Except it's the internet or NPR and not newspapers.

Rilke, Neruda, and Rumi have been wildly popular, if you believe the number of translations.

7 comentarios:

John dijo...

Where do Rod McKuen and Hugh Prather fit in?

Do they equivalents today?

19th-century balladeers were really popular. The only survivals from that tradition are "A Visit From St. Nicholas" and "Casey at the Bat," but sentimental and dramatic poems like "The Old Oaken Bucket" and "Casabianca" were hugely popular. W.S. Gilbert made a living as a writer of comic verse ("The Bab Ballads") before he hooked up with Sullivan; Ira Gershwin & Yip Harburg published "light verse" too before they hit as writers of song lyrics.

The Golden Age of popular poetry is not now. NPR and the internet are pop, but nothing close to the universality of newspapers 100 years ago and the popularity of poetry for hundreds of years before. Michael Schmidt argues that the popularity of broadside ballads kept the first English printers in business! NPR poetry always has an air of "it's supposed to be good for you," when earlier pop poetry did not.

Tennyson & Browning made good livings from their poetry. They wrote best-sellers! Byron transcended not because of his popularity -- which was huge -- but because of his rock-star iconicity -- he shows up in Bertrand Russell's "A History of Western Philosophy" as a philosophically influential icon of romanticism!

Poetry stayed popular well into the 20th century. American high school students all knew Longfellow & Whittier -- and Sandburg and Masters. Gertrude Stein wrote a best-seller! Prose, the Autobiography, which she parlayed into a successful, popular gig touring as a lecturer. Dylan Thomas was a rock star; Langston Hughes was pop (and wrote songs with Kurt Weill); Brecht wrote a Top 40 hit (when it was translated into English). Rexroth kept expecting (North) American poets to continue to write hit songs, and was pleased when Leonard Cohen pretty much did so.

Despite all my quibbles -- thanks for the post! Interesting to consider different ways of popularity in poetry. Rumi, Neruda, and Rilke ARE popular -- and it's interesting to consider why.

John dijo...


Jonathan dijo...

Yes. Balladeers. Nowadays we call them singer songwriters, like Leonard Cohen.

So what I'm saying is that we have to count highbrow, middlebrow, and pop culture all as part of poetry and take into account a comparison across several periods with changing media, and poets with appeal across more than one part of this range. Maybe Collins is not as popular as Sandburg once was. Does that translate into "poetry" not being as popular now as then?

I think vocal music counts, so Lorenz Hart is going to be a very popular poet looking back on the 20th century.

John dijo...

I've beent thinking similarly; have been meaning to blog about it -- or maybe even "write" about it! 70 years from now, Dr. Seuss is going to figure as prominently in visions of 20th century poetry as Lewis Carroll does in 19th century poetry today.


Steven Fama dijo...

Neruda's popularity is also a function of the movie Il Postino.

Jonathan dijo...

Neruda was popular way before that movie. That just keeps things going a little longer.

Steven Fama dijo...

You are right, he was popular way before the movie. But his books weren't in supermarkets before the movie. It not only kept "things" going a little longer, but made "things" a lot deeper for Neruda.

In our culture, never underestimate the pervasiveness of the visual.