First, let me start off by saying, I don’t know much of anything about Maya Angelou and this post isn’t really about her. I remember reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in school, but that’s about the extent of what I know about her. I read a few tributes and she sounds like an amazing woman, so maybe it’s time to rectify that.
But whether I do or not, one thing that was interesting to me was how many tributes there were to a poet in 2014. And my suspicion that this will be the last time in my lifetime that the death of a poet will be a national interest story. Can you name another living poet with even half of the stature of Maya Angelou? One that even learned people, let alone people who took high school English, could be expected to know?
I can’t. The closest I can think of is Lawrence Ferlinghetti, author of Coney Island of the Mind, and currently 95 years old. I saw him give a reading sometime in the 90s. He’s maybe more important for publishing Howl, but either way, he’s not household name. And he’s the most famous living poet I can think of.
The time of poets is over. That doesn’t mean there won’t be any poets. I’m sure there will. There might even be some great ones. But they’ll never capture the popular imagination the way they once did.
One reason I suspect is with greater media artists have greater control over their work. In 1800 if you were an artist who wanted to give every person who experienced your art roughly the same experience, you had two choices. You could paint/sculpt/draw something and display it for people or you could put it in a book and publish it. That was it.
On the other hand, if you wrote a song, you work was going to be interpreted by numerous people and might sound completely different depending on how they played/sang it and what instruments they used. If you weren’t famous enough to get your song published, people might not even know if was you.
You ever think about songs we consider traditional folk songs? They didn’t just spring out of the ground, there was someone, somewhere who is lost to time who had an idea and made it into a song. It’s kind of fun to think about. As long as we have cheap digital recording, that may never happen again. Imagine being able to trace House of the Rising Sun or Midnight Special back to its original owner. Or finding out who really wrote The Iliad- some ancient Greek poet who sat down and wanted to tell the story of the war between the Greeks and the Trojans and put it in a blog post that we could search for.
But 200 years ago you could put your name on a book of poetry and be relatively certain your poems would always be attributed to you. But nowadays why would you limit yourself that just writing poetry? You could write a song for a larger audience and still be sure people would know it was written by you and would hear it in the way you’d want them to. Or you could take that further- write a song and produce a music video for it. Or make a 3D IMAX film. Go nuts!
And the same goes for the audience. Sure, you could just read a book of poetry, and I enjoy doing that. But I also remember one time I found an old record in a library with TS Eliot reading one of his poems. It brought a whole new life to the poem he was reading, just to hear him read it in his own voice. Imagine if we had old recordings of Rimbaud or Whitman lying around! Or Virgil reading The Aeneid.
I enjoy reading something on the page, because having the freedom to make the picture in my mind is a beautiful thing. But in order to do so I need time and to not be distracted, which is a rarity in my life. And even then I’m not sure I wouldn’t prefer to hear a recording because I’d trust the author to read it the best (though I’m not sure this is justified either).
I feel like I lost my train of thought here somewhere, but the point is, getting a book of poetry published is no longer the best transmission of ideas an author can hope for and it’s not the best an audience can hope for so the world has moved on. I don’t think it’s a bad thing or a good thing, it just is.