Is Poetry Dead?
by Kenneth Lyen
Poetry is dead! Long live poetry!
Last year Bruce Wexler wrote an article in Newsweek entitled "Poetry is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care?" "Poetry," he said, "is designed for an era when people valued the written word and had the time and inclination to possess it in its highest form," but people no longer have "the patience to read a poem 20 times before the sound and sense of it takes hold. They aren't willing to let the words wash over them like a wave, demanding instead for the meaning to flow clearly and quickly. They want narrative-driven forms, stand-alone art that doesn't require an understanding of the larger context."
Was Wexler only referring to America? Here in Singapore, poetry is not as healthy as we think. There are warning signs that it may also be dying, and unless we do something about it, it will soon be on the critical list. Wait any longer, and the only thing that will save it will be mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Recently I've been asking my friends whether or not they read poetry. Almost none of them did on their own initiative. The only ones who read poetry were either writers like myself, or school kids who read poetry given to them by their teachers, but this was pretty rare. What surprised me was the recurring question asked by those who did not read poetry: "What's the benefit of reading poetry?"
This reminded me of a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Singapore, who asked professorial heads to justify the existence of their department. The School of Engineering, for example, had no difficulty justifying its existence because it generated students who would become economically productive. Medicine could argue that a country needs healthy individuals for the workforce. Law could claim that you need lawyers to secure contracts. But as one went down the roll call, certain department heads began to feel a distinct chill, reminiscent of a McCarthy-style witch-hunt.
How would a department of History or Literature be able to justify their existence? According to the bureaucrats, surely they do not produce graduates that would benefit our economy. Other than becoming teachers and journalists, what other jobs could they possibly be fit for?
In a sense this view of History and Literature as second class subjects has not entirely been dissipated here in Singapore, I have recently spoken to students who have been discouraged from taking Literature by their school teachers. And if it were not for the intervention of our about-to-be-installed new Prime Minister, History would surely have been jettisoned.
Let me return to poetry. It seems awfully curious to me as to why one needs to justify why one should read poetry. My glib retort would be to say that it's the same reason why you listen to music: poetry touches those parts that other art forms do not touch (apologies to Heineken Beer).
But in a more serious vein, the question that lies behind "Why do you read poetry", is "What is your philosophy of life? Do you eat to live, or live to eat?"
To justify to a bureaucrat why one should read poetry, one needs to think like a bureaucrat. The buzz-word of the moment is "creativity". Hence my first reason to justify the reading (and writing) of poetry is that it fosters creativity. It helps you think "out of the box", another useful catchphrase often used by present-day bureaucrats. It produces a "vibrant society", a "renaissance city". Poetry helps you think better... but maybe I should not push my luck on this.
Economic justification of poetry might go along the following lines. Poetry can be useful for certain industries. For example the greeting card industry would benefit from an army of poets. As would the songwriting industry, as the lyrics would help propel a song into profitability. Marginally, one could argue that poetry could help you write better. But this may be debatable, as the counter-argument is that doing crossword puzzles could be even more beneficial.
Lastly, and almost as an afterthought, I would stutter hesitatingly that perhaps, just perhaps, poetry might possibly help you become more open, more sensitive, more appreciative of our world, our feelings, our philosophies. That perhaps this tapestry of words can enrich our lives. Let me quote an extract from a poem by my friend and poet, Felix Cheong:
"No, poetry is more than the skill
of lying in wait
for the swish of an image,
keeping faith till it hooks
truth, triumphant and brief
from the muddy pool that is life."
- from "The One That Got Away" by Felix Cheong
Felix wrote to me and said, "No, poetry isn't dead, just dormant." Perhaps in Singapore, the best way of elevating the status of poetry, is the top-down approach. We need to elect a poet prime minister, damn it! Any volunteers?