What is good poetry? I’ve been saying that good poetry possesses poetic virtues and I’ve been busy naming them and talking about how to recognize and balance them. However, Josh suggests a shortcut, which is to find out who would pay what price for which poem. In other words, if poetry has value, people will be willing to exchange other value for it. In our society the only large market I can see for poetry is popular songs.
As I continue to listen to country music (and get a lot pickier about it) I realize that in a song lyric, first of all, people want something they recognize (because recognition is our mechanism for detecting truth) and secondly they want to feel something, whether humor or pathos, and thirdly they want the sound of the lyric – its rhyme, its meter – to make the song memorable. It’s difficult for me to observe but true that contemporary society has an extremely limited emotional repertoire and satisfies its desire for emotional complexity by writing from a perspective of brokenness. I won’t write that kind of poetry. If I write about damaged people, I will do so from a perspective external to them.
An apt example of what people want in a song lyric would be the song Red Solo Cup performed by Toby Keith. A little raunchy when you hear the off-radio version but definitely fulfills the qualifications I mentioned. The subject is recognizable, the lyrics are humorous and explore sides of the question we don’t exactly think about but feel as if we know deep down, they’re clever, well-rhymed and metered (people love rhyme and meter but they want the words that rhyme to be the important ones) and they fit the music to perfection.
Another popular song with some merit right now is The Wind performed by Zac Brown Band. Here the music outperforms the lyrics quite a bit but that refrain, “My love will find you anywhere, anywhere my love,” seems to call on tradition and contemporary openness at the same time.
For most people, poetry is preferred in a context rather than abstracted on a page.
Abstract poetry is a cultivated taste. It’s enjoyed by those who are in some sense and to some extent cultured.
To everyone else, poetry that appears in a movie or story or song or game is going to be far more welcome and far more natural – and more valuable, as well, apparently. I suggest that giving poetry to children in context prepares them to appreciate it when it’s abstracted. Failing an outward context, giving an inward context (in other words writing a narrative poem or writing quite explicitly) helps. The exception seems to be sex. People with no subtlety at all can apparently recognize a double-entendre miles away.