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Poetry is not designed to be mouthed silently

About the most difficult thing in America today is finding a publisher for a volume of poetry. No matter whether they are tragedians, romantics, or writers of comic verse, poets are cold–shouldered by the major publishing houses.

Yet it wasn’t always so. Poetry’s decline as a popular cultural medium began less than fifty years ago. Indeed, publishers once vied for the services of leading poets and went out of their way to nurture the up–and–coming.

It was by no means unusual for poets to make a handsome living. Whitman and Longfellow by no means starved in garrets. Rudyard Kipling, poetaster of Imperial India, lived in considerable opulence. T. S. Elliott, Robert Frost, and Ezra Pound were lionized and routinely feted.

Poor A. A. Milne took his poetry very seriously and would, doubtless, be appalled that today he is remembered only as the creator of Disney characters. Winnie the Pooh and Piglet came into being when Milne, as a joke, dashed off a tale about his infant son, Christopher Robin, and assigned the copyright to his wife for pin money.

But poetry’s decline is only the tip of an iceberg. Writing standards, public and private, have been in free fall for more than a generation. Just take our newspapers. The tortured grammar and syntax might be forgivable if the contents weren’t so banal and tedious.

Wars, for example, are many things—brutish, terrifying, gruesome, and nasty—but they aren’t boring. You’d never guess this from the filings from Iraq. Compare today’s humdrum offerings with the work of the war correspondents during World War II, Korea, and even Vietnam.

The same holds true in the world of books. Fiction or nonfiction, the publishers lists are dominated by the turgid and dreary. There are probably as many “great writers” published today as in the past—namely, very few. The loss of craftsmanship has been most keenly felt in the great middle ground—the journeymen writers of detective stories, romantic novels, “rattling good yarns” and non-fiction works, such as popular histories.

It’s not that such titles have ceased to be published. The problem is that the quality of the writing has plummeted. One reason for the decline in standards is that editors aren’t what they used to be. Media conglomerates, dominated by managers obsessed with the bottom line, tend to pare editorial costs to the bone. The result? Well … as my old dad used to say, “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.”

Furthermore, the advent of electricity introduced the cheap electric light bulb to replace the expensive wax candle. This, in turn, eliminated the need for family members to read aloud to one another as source of economical entertainment.

Then, in the latter half of the 19th Century, utilitarians used “silent reading” as an efficient, businesslike way of disseminating knowledge. Prior to that, everybody (ignoramuses and intellectuals, high brows and low, without exception) read aloud—and not just the Bible, books and collections of poetry, but newspapers, magazines, public notices and private correspondence. Writers of all sorts, thus, framed their work to be read aloud.

Authors back then weren’t concerned merely with the efficient transmission of information. They took just as much care about how their work would sound. Folks should bear this in mind when they struggle with Shakespeare, Dickens, Melville, Henry James and their contemporaries. It is only reading writers of the past aloud that we can fully grasp their ideas and appreciate the richness of their language.

However, thanks to television, computers, and the internet, reading aloud is rapidly becoming a lost art. It is, indeed, ironic that in an age in which our means of communication has reached undreamed of heights our ability to express ourselves is approaching a nadir. GPH✠

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