Night of the unread: Do we need an ethnography of poetry?

by John MacBeath Watkins

In this post, we explored the question of why humans, the songbirds of the primate world, have taken to producing poets whose work fails to sing in a way that most people find important to their lives.

And in this one, we explored the effect of modernism on literature, in its flight from meaning, as if the discovery of the power of language had caused its practitioners to fear it.

And now I'm wondering whether what's needed is an ethnography of poetry, a study of what it means to us, why it connected to us more strongly in the past, and why it largely fails to do so now.

What caused the great retrenchment, in which newspapers which used to publish poetry stopped doing so, and the purveyors of light verse found the market for their product was drying up?

Is it the battle between the sweet song of the mythic truth that sustained us before rationalism became the dominant mode of action, and the problem-solving, form-follows-function mentality of the mechanical age?

Or did poetry somehow become captive to an elite who sought to exclude the working-class lyric of the working lass? Remember Mr. Deeds, writer of poetry for greeting cards, being shunned by the real writers? Was that it, or was it always thus?

After all, the Irish Fili fulfilled the roles of magician, seer, lawgiver, judge, counselor to the chief, and poet. They may, in fact, have continued many of the roles of the druids after Christianity came to Ireland.

And the epic poems that have survived tend to be about the nobility and their deeds. Perhaps through most of history, there has been an aristocratic bias. Certainly, some of the earliest secular poems and songs recorded were those the church tried to suppress, because they were rebellious works by priests made cynical through their exposure to the church.

The Goliard poets were suppressed with some success, but one of the means used was to call them "bohemians," in an effort to associate them with the Gypsies, then called Bohemians in France. We still use the word bohemian to describe a rebel poet, so who really won that encounter?

Have we ever really explored what poetry means to us, and how that meaning has changed over time? We have a great deal of literary scholarship, and a great deal must be known, but it has been studied as literature. Perhaps it is time to explore poetry's place in society, rather than explore poetry itself.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self