Diary of a Poet

Poetry Survives Latest Death Threat

Poets, writers, teachers and parents are wringing their hands over the November 2022 release of ChatGPT, an AI program which can “answer followup questions, admit its mistakes, challenge incorrect premises, and reject inappropriate requests,” according to descriptions at its creator’s website, OpenAI. No doubt you’ve seen the ChatGPT-written “poetry” and “essays” people have gleefully shared on social media while declaring the written word’s demise by chatbot.

Then, in December of 2022, Matthew Walther wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times titled Poetry Died 100 Years Ago This Month, in which Walther declares, “We stopped writing good poetry because we are now incapable of doing so. The culprit is not bad pedagogy or formal experimentation but rather the very conditions of modern life, which have demystified and alienated us from the natural world.” 

It’s been a challenging few months for poetry.

I don’t know of another art form that is subjected to such frequent death threats. When have you heard someone proclaim the death of music, dance, or the visual or performing arts? None of these seems to inspire the type of fury that poetry does. As Muriel Rukeyser wrote in “The Resistances,” the first chapter of her essential book The Life of Poetry, “Anyone dealing with poetry and the love of poetry must deal, then, with the hatred of poetry, and perhaps even more with the indifference which is driven toward the center.”

Matthew Walther’s argument for the death of poetry hinges on what he perceives as our modern-day fractured relationship with the natural world. In the time of Milton, we lived in “a natural world alive with intimations of the transcendent that could be evoked, personified and filtered through one’s subjective experience. But modern life, disenchanted by science and mediated by technology, has made that kind of relationship with the natural world impossible, even if we are keen botanists or hikers.” 

According to Walther, the poet who killed poetry is none other than T.S. Eliot, and this is how he did it: “In juxtaposing automobiles, typewriters, gramophones, popular lyrics and modern slang with allusions to Jacobean dramatists and half-parodic forays into more recognizably ‘poetic’ language, Eliot created an idiom that captured the disappearance of the pre-modern worldview.”

It all started, or ended if you prefer, with the opening of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:”

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table.

Fortunately, not everyone agrees. In 2004, Donald Hall wrote “Poetry was always in good shape twenty or thirty years ago; now it has always gone to hell. I have heard this lamentation for forty years, not only from distinguished critics and essayists but from professors and journalists who enjoy viewing our culture with alarm.” 

Hall also gives us an example of why we poets should care: “Dubious elegies on the death of poetry shouldn’t need answers. A frequently reported lie, however, can turn into fact. In his essay, Joseph Epstein tells us that ‘last year the Los Angeles Times announced it would no longer review books of poems.’”

In other words, if we allow these attacks on poetry to go unchallenged, they can unfortunately become the truth. People will believe them—not only will notable journals and magazines stop reviewing books of poetry, but schools will stop including poetry in their curricula (sadly, many already do) and the already scant funding for the literary arts will dry up.

It seems a little premature to worry too much over the specter of AI-created poetry, although AI depends on content that already exists (and apparently, it’s “scraping” some of this illegally) so creative types are justified in their concern that their work could be stolen. Those of us who write and read poetry are a small, fairly self-contained group—I simply can’t imagine the person who, for example, takes a poetry class and attempts to turn in something AI-written. I can imagine students trying to get away with this when writing essays, but a teacher should be able to recognize this for what it is: plagiarism. 

So let me say this, unequivocally: poetry is alive and well. It thrives everywhere: carved into sidewalks, painted on the walls of parking garages, in books, magazines, and yes, the internet. It’s the subject of festivals in cities all over the world. 

As Rukeyser puts it, “We are poets; we can make the words.”

5 replies »

  1. I’d say poetry itself isn’t dead or dying, but READING and BUYING poetry are becoming extinct activities. As Eavan Boland said about the Irish, 90% of Americans are writing poetry, 10% are reading it, and 3% are buying it.

  2. I love that first Rukeyser quote…esp the indifference at the core. A terrific book, too, The Life of Poetry. More folks should read it.
    Interestingly, a writer I know was recently wondering whether a poem would “work” if she had a person using a cell phone to pay for items at a store. Tech like typewriters and ether enters the poetic vernacular? hmmmm

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