A funny thing happened to poetry about a hundred years ago. Except that it wasn't very funny.In really ancient times, several thousand years back, most of the important things written were written in poetry. The idea seems to have been that the most notable events or thoughts should be recorded in the most notable language. A lot has happened since then, and the prevalence of either poetry or prose has varied in different periods. The Renaissance gave us some of the most glorious poetry ever written, though it also brought the invention of the personal essay (Montaigne, Bacon). The creation of modern science in the seventeenth century gave rise to a new kind of prose that we now call technical writing. But, ironically, the writer most influential in its development was John Dryden, the premier English poet of the latter half of that century.
The novel as an art form had its beginnings in the eighteenth century and grew to full fruition in the nineteenth, though poetry (as practiced by writers like Pope, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and others) continued to have large audiences. Even in the early twentieth century, Robert Frost and Edward Arlington Robinson could actually make a living as poets.
But by WW I, the Imagists and other avant garde groups were moving poetry away from the general public and writing to smaller and smaller audiences, growing more esoteric and obscure, until most readers simply went somewhere else.The result was, so to speak, a divorce of poetry from the audience that had sustained it through recent centuries. And that situation, for the most part, has prevailed through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. In a rarified atmosphere with a significant element of narcissism, poets-as-conscious-artists write to other poets-as-conscious-artists, while potential readers in the general public turn to more rewarding media.
My message when I teach at writers' conferences is that it doesn't have to be this way. I believe that what has been called a divorce is at worst a legal separation, and that reconciliation is possible. What we need is a phalanx of writers willing to study the elements of poetry, develop their craft, and write significant thoughts in beautiful language.
That's what I'm trying to do in my own poetry, and it's what I'm trying to teach others to do.
I've found that people respond well to readings of good-quality poetry aimed at a general audience. And who can read or hear a good poem without thinking, "I'd like to do that"? We won't make a lot of money with our poetry, but creating beautiful and inspiring things is its own reward. And well-written poems will endure and continue to teach and inspire long after our transient commercial prose is forgotten.
I'm hoping more and more writers will join the phalanx.