Poetry is dying. The old poetry is slow, uncaring, definitive; the new poetry is brash, boring, and predictable. The young would characterize themselves as bold and revolutionary; the old only remember those words as semiotic instances requiring further analysis. We have academia to remind each other that poetry still exists, while the young use it as they would use a condom. Poetry is a word thrown about for anything and everything, having been radically divorced from form, now more adverb than noun. (And those such examinations of language -- the mere subtlety of it -- is a reproachful casualty.)
The old poetry is all sound and fury: a spinning wheel of masturbatory fantasy doomed to irrelevancy (if it is not already as irrelevant as the new poetry is irreverent). The world of old poetry exists solely in books: broken tomes dusty and constantly on sale at the local manifestation of a national bookstore chain. Even in the small-town stores, poetry readings aren't really advertised, and the audience tends to be made up of bored housewives who once heard of Anne Sexton. The old poetry lives in a didactic, formal space shirking any attempt at cultural or social relevancy. It exists in between the offices of tenured English professors, or those untenured staff writing hurried dissertations on the lost notes of Ezra Pound or Shelley, trying to find gold between stanzas.
The old poetry largely rejects anything but that "printed" form. In fact, it relies solely upon it: what's online of old poets is third-party, of course. I'm not saying T.S. Eliot is gonna come back from the dead to post a new poem on Facebook, but I am saying that nobody is making an attempt to make him a subject worth any interest to the ADHD-augmented, besides being just another assignment in a visionless English class. The only way a 16-year-old will encounter Yeats is either through a teacher they don't like or if they accidentally find themselves in the one-aisle poetry section of a Barnes & Noble. We do not have similar problems with contemporary art: usually that's stenciled on the side of high school walls. Not only does Old Poetry not know how to remedy this, they don't even know it's as a problem. It's as if poetry has become archaeology to them: why try to put emphasis on the civilizations of the dead? (The answers to this are as obvious as the problems of most modern-day citizens: nobody knows to learn from the past anymore.)
The old poetry itself also denies any substantive alliance to the world of prose. Poetry is a separate section of the store, but has it always been? I think so. Poetry, if anything at all, has always believed itself to be a faith centered around an even higher power, requiring muses of greater and more revelatory character than those of pure fiction-writers. Poets usually wrote poetry and criticism, and while they might not be bestsellers, they're the ones who live "longer" in the culture of High Art. Like old fine art itself, poetry requires a more dense rhetoric, a nuanced discourse of assumption and reflection. To study poetry is to believe in something rather than generate a proof of algorithmic fact. (While the potentially mathematical form of a poem does inform the reading, it's merely one facet of a potentially glimmering gemstone.)
Old poetry is, to the rest of the universe, an immovable mountain. The world made a city in the valley of that mountain, once... and has now moved out to the suburbs to settle down. What's worse than this is the people who revisit the old mountain of poetry, walking along its features like tourists or, worse, like hikers or park rangers. Step upon the old ground, trample it til you make a path, wear away all the former meaning. A few people still live there and tend the grass as if it's a national landmark; while it may be guarded, it's not sacred so far as it is a resource to be mined. There have been no tweets that say "gosh darn i like me some lord byron". We go to Yellowstone to experience its splendor and buy some souvenirs, but in many ways our appreciation mimics the Las Vegas style spectacle; nobody goes there anymore to breathe fresh air and know what it's like to be lost in a forest. Walden Pond is a tourist trap now. This, in itself, is morosely poetic.
Old poetry, as it still survives, is a closed system. It's meant for certain eyes. The journals are all dense and written in the most unappealing jargon. I tried reading a couple of them, then I realized that I have a life to lead, I have shit to do. Poetry, if nothing else, should remind me why I'm leading that life; poetry should color that life, transcend its emotions, make bridges between the reason of the word and the feelings you forget. That's one way to describe poetry. The fact that poetry is indefinable, like all Art, is a treasure few seem to remember.
The new poetry, the poetry of the last 35 years (I almost said 25 but I remembered that decade between 2000 and 2010), has a lot wrong with it. I think, more so than contemporary art, that poetry has been the worst victim of the world after postmodernism. Born into a world filled with every scrap of poetry ever published (including tons of poetry never published, and never intended to be published) and every author having a fair shake at becoming published, contemporary poets and poetry publications are dime-a-dozen. I could drown in the number of poets who have had a poem published. I'm not saying that this observation, in itself, is relevant; I'm saying it indicates that we lack the curation to let any individual rise to the top. We have a vast ecosystem spead out further than the eye can see, but that's all. As huge as it has gotten, over the last 30 years we've spent the majority of our time content on ground-level. People think that being "underground" is still cool: all that means is that you're not even relevant enough to be known among thousands of "published" writers on blogs and small-college journals. There isn't even an "underground" anymore because there is no establishment to be a part of: you are a part of the world of poetry as soon as you post a poem to your Tumblr or your Twitter.
If the old poetry is something that was bred from rigorous study of form, meter, rhyme, et cetera, then the new poetry is formed and subsequently stratified by nonconformity and improvisation. New poetry is dependent upon re-re-reappropriated feelings first heard as hip-hop standoffishness. The "spoken word" is taken mistakenly as "statement" rather than mere exercise. When an old poet reads their work, it's like a book signing. It's nice, it's necessary, but it's not the work of the poet. To the new poets, that spoken word slam bullshit is the life and the breath. The slam is not only masturbatory, but it's contrary to poetry itself. The last thing a poet should wish to do is compete, or let the exemplary showcase of their work be an open mic night at your average hipster lounge. I don't even like writing about poetry slams, it hurts my brain to think somebody somewhere thought it was a great idea. It reminds me of some abominable American Idol or Survivor for poetry.
Please note: the aim here is not to criticize the foundations of hip-hop or rap, or what they began as cultural expression. There is a line in the arts between music and poetry, and there always has been. There are musical qualities to poetry just as there are poetic qualities to music. Hip-hop is musical expression, and does indeed blur the border of poetry, but the two worlds are separate and sovereign. There is an almost indefinable quality to poetry, just as there are similarly indefinable forces behind music and painting, and they are nothing without these nebulous definitions. We create these forms, we maintain them, and it is our fault when they are systemically destroyed. Our ability to express ourselves cohesively (though abstractly) rusts along with them, and we all suffer for it.
Performance is not poetry. However, all the kids found performance to be way more interesting than reading all those dead poets. Especially since the def jam world is much more visceral, immediate, and shallowly counter- and multi-cultural. With that, poetry dug its own grave, or at least allowed people to dig it. I would argue that the old poets who were still alive, in their tenured professor positions, didn't care enough about Poetry (capital-P poetry) to do anything about it. I doubt they even realized anything was going on, they were too busy writing journal articles about each other, like love letters between bored cousins. This is truly what poetry has done to itself.
The possibility of poetic openness, a lot like the modern standard of liberal openness, is very appealing, especially with such expansive and levelling technologies as the internet. I won't even blame the internet for the death of poetry: poetry was dying before it came along. If anything, the internet merely represents another true nail in the coffin of all artistic enterprises. What would the internet do for poetry that isn't just making problems worse? The internet represents the death of curation. Poetry requires curation to be great. (Something has to be a lower form for one thing to be a higher form. Not everything that is poetic should be considered poetry.) The art of poetry, that indefinable quality, is drained away and made obsolete, replaced by a need to be accessible and consumable, like the intents of all fine art have been.
Poetry is about craft, humility, form, and feeling. These truths are held within the wordspace of a poem, which is a dubious negotiating position in the 21st century. Painting has paint, physicality, something easily definable in reality: poetry has mere words, language. The true beauty of poetry is in its mere existence: that we can abstract our language enough through its mastery of interpretation to allow the nuance of poetic form. But with abstraction comes responsibility, because such layering of the metaphysical language requires relevancy and education. It requires distillation and curation. This sense has been lost by the general populace, which is unfortunately no surprise. How could it have survived? Again, like fine art itself, this aloof sense of "Art" is counterproductive to the nature of late capitalism and neoliberalism. "Art" is a market that can't be mass-produced, it can't be easily commodified or brought to the everyday person, doing so requires its destruction, and that is exactly what has happened.
Old poetry exists on its mountain, alone, without hope of rejoining the world. New poetry is diffuse, the cultural biproduct of misplaced expression, the appropriation of form for the benefit of a collective excuse. We are not even nostalgic for the old poetry. The articulated poet has lost in the war against openness. "Poetry is hearing" verus "poetry is speaking": one is a mastery of the passive form, the other is an ego-centric exploitation of artistic endeavor. The "hearing" of the old implies external direction and articulation, both by the writer and the reader. The "speaking" of the new implies an assumed trust between writer/reader and the abstraction of truth as a medium for the message. Old poetry is a "delight" because it is a dance of understanding through abstraction, the new poetry represents a "need" to be expressed. Both parties, the old and the new, wrote poetry for themselves and their readers, but the emphasis on its end product shifted from something holy and articulated to something consumable and visceral. The audience has become too important; the author went from being a vessel to an entertainer. The old think they have it all figured out; the new think they don't need to bother figuring it out as long as it works.
Do I have a solution? No, I don't. I don't want to see a Facebook page for Lord Byron. At the same time, I very much want to see poetry published in the New York Times, but I don't trust anyone to do the job. You can't hire an English professor but you can't just post anything submitted to the firstname.lastname@example.org mailing list (that list doesn't exist, it's just a hypothetical). We can all send in our poetry to the hundred thousand online publications, but what is curation if there are an infinite number of venues? How does the Chicago Review select what it prints? I don't think T.S. Eliot would've appreciated the exploitations of Twitter, though such fragments were likewise shored against his ruins. Does anyone even care what these things mean anymore? I don't know if it matters, all I know is the world is boring for not appreciating them.