Poets and Readers in 1815 and 2015

Yesterday, The Conversation published a piece by the poet and Professor of Creative Writing Ian Gregson, which argues that poetry is ‘well and truly in the margins’ of contemporary culture. Poetry’s marginalisation, according to Gregson, is a relatively recent phenomenon, brought about by the ‘growing prevalence of popular music’, which stole poetry’s lyrical thunder, and most importantly by the ‘new media’ of 24-hour television, the internet, and social media. The development of these media technologies, Gregson concludes, and the modes of thinking that they encourage, have been detrimental to the ‘slow reading that poetry demands’. The ‘painstaking process’ of reading, rereading, and understanding a poem is beyond many readers, whose reading practices are shaped by the limitless availability of instant, fragmented, technologically mediated information. That’s why poetry now languishes in the margins of culture.

200 years ago, in January 1815, William Wordsworth set out a surprisingly similar argument in the ‘Essay, Supplementary to the Preface’ that he wrote for his 1815 Poems. Wordsworth’s essay was primarily written as a riposte to the critics who had slated his (very long) 1814 poem The Excursion, particularly the influential reviewer Francis Jeffrey. The essay opens with an attack on unqualified and undiscriminating critics which, Wordsworth regrets, is ‘of too ungracious a nature to have been made without reluctance’. His reluctance, though, doesn’t stop him from then scolding the general readers who also failed to appreciate (or even to buy) The Excursion. The minds of the majority of readers, he claims, are too content to be ‘passive’, and this is a problem for writers of verse, because the concerns of the poet – ‘the profound and the exquisite in feeling, the lofty and universal in thought and imagination’ – cannot be appreciated ‘without the exertion of a co-operating power in the mind of the Reader’. Like Gregson 200 years later, Wordsworth fears that readers are no longer up to the active and painstaking task of exerting themselves in order to study and think through a challenging piece of poetry.

The reasons Wordsworth gives for readers’ failings are also not dissimilar to those mentioned by Gregson. In his 1815 essay, Wordsworth argues that the intellectual inactivity of the average reader derives from ‘that selfishness which is the child of apathy, – which, as Nations decline in productive and creative power, makes them value themselves upon a presumed refinement of judging.’ This is an early expression of an argument that would become commonplace throughout the nineteenth century: that modern, industrially developed societies (exemplified, of course, by nineteenth-century Britain) inevitably suffer a decline in poetic sensibility. In Wordsworth’s view, ‘creative power’ has been replaced in British culture by an over-readiness to make quick, lazy, and shallow judgements about the writings of those who do still try to create and innovate. In his 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, he is more precise about the causes of the declining quality of British readers: ‘a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and […] to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the encreasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies.’ Both Wordsworth in 1815 and Gregson in 2015 attribute the marginalisation of innovative, challenging poetry to the increasingly rapid circulation of information that characterises modern society.

The similarity of these arguments suggests, to me, two key points. First, it seems that, since at least 1800, poets have feared that modern media and social relations, and the habits of thinking they enable and promote, are inimical to the appreciation of poetry. It’s tempting to search for some grand historical explanation for this view: perhaps the emergence and rapid commercial success of the novel as a rival form in the eighteenth century; or even the gradual shift towards a more and more literate society, in which the reading aloud of verses was inexorably replaced by the silent reading of printed texts. My hunch, though, is that specialists in earlier periods of literary history could provide plenty of pre-1800 examples of poets lamenting the marginalisation of poetry; readers ain’t ever what they used to be. Perhaps, then, poetry often seems to be marginalised because the poet is an inherently marginal figure, commenting on social life from the assumed position of an outsider. Or perhaps it could be argued that poetry, innovative and challenging poetry at least, is not just marginal but oppositional, demanding that readers think about things, or think from perspectives, that are destabilising or discomfiting, and presenting its demands in unfamiliar forms and complex language. That’s probably never going to be popular.

The second key point is that Wordsworth and Gregson agree in arguing that poetry demands the active participation of the reader; understanding a poem requires the patient exertion of the reader’s imaginative and critical powers. Gregson ends his piece with a rallying call to university teachers of English literature and of creative writing: ‘universities should be at the forefront of renewing interest in poetry. Instead the opposite is happening, because universities are responding to financial constraints by giving students more and more of what they want.’ I agree unequivocally with the first sentence: universities have a responsibility to help their students develop the critical skills needed to appreciate poetry. I’m not, however, as gloomy as Gregson about the future of poetry in academia. Although many of my students at the University of Surrey are initially wary of studying poetry, the overwhelming majority of them, in the end, find something of significance for themselves in the poems they read. As Gregson states, university teachers need to continue to stimulate students’ interest in poetry. They need to do more than this, though; they also need to act as vocal advocates for the invigorating difficulty of poetry outside universities, throughout society more widely.

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