“Will people still read poetry in 100 years time?”, my friend Toby said as we sat in a pub in central London. “Yes” I replied.
We live in a world obsessed with material things. Whether one is watching a production of “Wuthering Heights” on commercial television or a trashy talent show, the advertisements are sure to interrupt one’s viewing with tedious regularity. Beautiful women imply that if men purchase certain products they will obtain the girl of their dreams, while other comercials exhort us to buy the latest gadgets (even though those we own are hardly out of their packaging and work perfectly well). Given this world of plastic smiles, where the sun always shines, its tempting to think that poetry is irrelevant as we find ourselves through endless consumption of products.
The idea that we are drowning in a sea of vapid consumerism is far from new. Take, for example William Wordsworth’s 19th-century poem “The World Is Too Much With us”:
“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn”.
Wordsworth is right when he says “getting and spending, we lay waste our powers”. Indeed in this age of the internet and 24-hour television his poem is, perhaps even more relevant than when he penned it. However, modernity which as brought us TV shows where the foolish and the inadequate make fools of themselves for the enjoyment of the viewers, has also ushered in a plethora of high quality classic serials (and full length dramatisations) in which the great works of literature fill our screens. Technology now exists which allows the recording of programmes while disregarding the commercial break. Tech is, indeed a double-edged sword!
The internet is full of vapid celebrities living “perfect” lives. It is, however also replete with websites and blogs which furnish everything from William Wordsworth to William Shakespeare. The web also allows poets who might otherwise have languished unread to gain a following (and perhaps fame) in the digital age.
So in answer to my friend Toby, I conclude by saying that the glass is neither full nor empty. It is somewhere between those two states. Advertising may drive us bonkers (this is certainly true with me), however one can find solace in poetry which proliferates both in print and online.
As always I would be interested in the perspectives of my readers.