Should Poetry be “Relevant”?

Yesterday evening, my friend and I fell into a discussion concerning poetry. This came about as a consequence of me mentioning that I am in the process of producing a further collection of my own work.

During the course of our conversation, my friend mentioned that “poetry should be relevant”.

I responded that Keats great poem, “Ode to a Nightingale” (https://poets.org/poem/ode-nightingale), remains as relevant today as when the poet composed it. I said that the poem deals powerfully with the themes of beauty, life and death, and continues to resonate with the 21st century reader due to the fact that it touches on the human condition.

My friend acknowledged that “Ode to a Nightingale” is a wonderful poem. However he said that Keat’s work was written for an educated elite and was not read by ordinary people.

It is undoubtedly the case that at the time of the poems composition few “working class” people possessed the ability to read and write. Consequently “Ode” was (by and large) appreciated by an educated (and often wealthy) reading public. To acknowledge this self-evident fact does not, however imply that we ought to embrace the contention that “poetry should be relevant”.

Every poem is, of course relevant to the poet who puts pen to paper, (he would not have composed it where this not the case). A poet feels love, sadness, despair, sorrow, happiness (or a myriad other emotions) and feels impelled to compose a poem. In the moment of composition his poem is “relevant” to him and usually remains so throughout the remainder of his life.

However the power of a great poem lies in it’s ability to transcend time and place. From the early 19th century Keats “Nightingale” speaks poignantly to people of all social groups today. for the themes of life, death and beauty are as “relevant” to 21st century man as they were to the man or woman of the 19th century. Unlike the early 19th century, in the 20th (and 21st centuries) education is (in the developed world at least) now widespread, which enables people of all backgrounds to appreciate more complex poetry. I say “more complex”, for humans have always enjoyed poems, whether of the nursery rhyme variety, baudy verses or Homer’s “Odyssey” and “Iliad”. The latter were of course (originally) recited from memory so were accessible to people of all social stations. Therefore Homer, who is considered by some as “elitist”, was not viewed in this manner when his great works enthralled the ancients, when recited to the assembled populace.

We do, I believe need to be wary of assuming that because someone grows up in a tower block where the lifts rarely (if ever) work and gangs roam the estate, that they need (if, indeed they need poetry at all), to read poems about people living in similar circumstances to those in which they find themselves.

If an individual living in the circumstances described above writes poetry, she may well compose poems about gangs, drug dealers and other issues which often plague run down estates. Her work may possess literary merit (or it may not). However it should not be argued that her work is (due to it being based in gritty reality) more “relevant” than “Ode to a Nightingale”.

Of course the work of the poet living on a badly maintained estate is as “relevant” to her, as was Keats “Nightingale” to the poet as he sat penning it on Hampstead Heath. We should not, however jump to the assumption that merely because a person comes from poor circumstances that they are, somehow incapable of appreciating Keats, Shakespeare or Wordsworth. Through good teaching people of all kinds can (and should) enjoy our rich literary heritage, for it belongs to all of us. Certainly it is easier for the child growing up in a household full of books to gain an appreciation for the literary arts. But its by no means impossible for the girl or boy growing up on a poor estate to do likewise. Ultimately great art does not only transcend time and place, it also goes beyond social class and touches the hearts of us all. This is why I dislike the word “relevant” when applied to the appreciation of literature.

19 thoughts on “Should Poetry be “Relevant”?

  1. Victoria Zigler (@VictoriaZigler)

    Poetry – in fact, writing in general – deals with human experiences and emotions. Since those are always relevant, it follows that pieces of writing – poetry or otherwise – are too. Perhaps some topics might be more relevant to someone than others, and a particular poem – or story – won’t be relevant to everyone who may or may not decide to read it. However, it will be relevant to someone, even if only as a window in to the heart and soul of the writer.

    Reply
    1. K Morris Poet Post author

      Many thanks for your comment Tori. You make a good point, namely that each poem will be relevant to someone and (to use my own words), even if its only relevant to the person who wrote it, the poem is, nonetheless relevant to the composer. However truly great poetry does, as I say in the article, resonate down the centuries and remains “relevant” to people irrespective of time and place, due to it touching on the human condition. Best, Kevin

      Reply
      1. Monique Desir

        Kevin, your original question was “should poetry be relevant?” not which kinds of poetry are more relevant. The latter is subjective. So, the manner in which your argument unraveled into a commentary on wealth vs poverty is strange. That said, I found your original question to be rhetorical because of course poetry is relevant. I do indeed agree with that. Lovely.

      2. K Morris Poet Post author

        Many thanks for your comment Monique.

        I dealt at some length with the social issue as it was raised by my friend during the course of our conversation. But I do, of course agree with you that this is a vast subject. Indeed one could write a whole treatise and/or book on it.

        Best, Kevin

  2. Veronica

    I completely agree with you, Kevin!

    ”Ultimately great art does not only transcend time and place, it also goes beyond social class and touches the hearts of us all.” – Beautifully and wisely said!

    Usually, the poems called ”relevant” today are related to a particular event, which will be forgotten entirely as the years pass; nevertheless, genuinely great poets, like Keats, wrote verses which live on through the centuries because they were focused on capturing the movements of the soul rather than being strictly ”relevant.”

    As for dividing art into ”elitist” and ”egalitarian” types: doubtlessly, people from different backgrounds have divergent tastes, which doesn’t make one category better than the other!

    No poem, however fascinating it is, can resonate with every single individual – and this multifacetedness is the true beauty of poetry.

    With gratitude for your thoughtful post,
    Veronica.

    Reply
    1. K Morris Poet Post author

      Thanks for your wonderful comments Veronica. I wholeheartedly agree with all you say, and the following particularly resonated with me, “Usually, the poems called ”relevant” today are related to a particular event, which will be forgotten entirely as the years pass; nevertheless, genuinely
      great poets, like Keats, wrote verses which live on through the centuries because they were focused on capturing the movements of the soul rather than
      being strictly ”relevant”.”
      All the best, Kevin

      Reply
  3. Chris Hall

    Interesting post. Relevance for whom is a moot question, and I completely agree with the comment above. It might be relevant to write about The Virus at the moment, but we don’t all want or need to do that.

    Reply
    1. K Morris Poet Post author

      Many thanks for your comment Chris. I have myself written about the virus, however I completely accept that not everybody wants to write (or read about) Corona. As you say, Veronica’s comments are excellent. Best, Kevin

      Reply
  4. blindzanygirl

    This is. Very interesting question Kevin. A lot of food for thought there. I agree that the word “relevant” is not really that meningful regarding poetry. Relevant to whom? In what was relevant? It is a word that doesn’t really say that much in the realm of poetry. But I might have misunderstood the meaning of the word “relevant.” I feel like writing an essay on this!

    Reply
    1. K Morris Poet Post author

      Many thanks for your comments Lorraine. I think (and my understanding was confirmed by my friend), that by “relevant” he meant meaningful to the life experience of the reader. Whilst Keats “Nightingale” isn’t the easiest of poems to comprehend (although there are far more difficult ones, such as Eliot’s “Wasteland”), it does touch on the human condition, and although not everyone has heard a nightingale sing, the meaning of the poem can, I believe be understood by those who take the time to read it, irrespective of their (own unique) life experience. Best, Kevin

      Reply
      1. blindzanygirl

        I agree with you Kevin. Sorry, I am a bit of an analyser and pull things apart a bit. Due to my training. I am struggling with this a bit though, but not sure why yet! There is a thought somewhere in the back of my mind but I cannot access it yet. But I do see exactly what you are saying.

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