Poetry has become an outdated art form
Poems - an obsolete model for literature? Why we urgently need poetry again today
Is the literature obsolete? Why we urgently need poetry again today
The poetry is valued and yet hardly read. Reading poetry teaches us something that we urgently need again, especially in times of populism: how to deal with ambiguity.
Poetry actually enjoys the status of a current art form. The most prestigious German-language literary award, the Georg Büchner Prize, was presented to a poet twice in a row. The poet Jan Wagner also received the Leipzig Book Fair Prize. In Switzerland, many authors of all generations dedicate themselves to poetry and thus have intact chances of receiving a large number of awards and contributions.
More recently, poetry has merged and rejuvenated itself with poetry slams and all kinds of performances, making it a sought-after part of the cultural scene. The art of poetry is by no means just dissolving into the new forms as recycling material.
At the same time, a renaissance of classical poetry forms such as the sonnet can be observed. The accentuation of the artistic, the departure from everyday language has again become a creative possibility, but mostly in a playful manner.
Poetry instead of news
Reading modern poetry also fits in perfectly with the zeitgeist and today's lifestyle. Information and entertainment are consumed everywhere and in small bites. Poems often have a closeness and brevity that allows a small work of art to be grasped in its entirety even in a modest attention span.
A complete enjoyment of art within seconds, that should suit many of today's people. Last but not least, modern poems sharpen the view for the unimportant and problematize the apparently self-evident, as it were as condensed reportage.
So it is obvious that the poetry, with all its brevity and handiness, with a keen eye on convention and language use, can also become an explicit media criticism. In an implicit way, poetry is a counterpart to the information business. While news are consumer articles that can become obsolete within minutes and in which language is used as a mere instrument, poetry cultivates a conscious use of language and claims timeless validity.
The founders of romantic English poetry, Wordsworth and Coleridge, went so far as to view their poetry as poison against the "degrading need for scandalous stimulation" which the mass media fomented. The poets scourged the longing for news arriving every hour. That was around 1800, when the news was still expected by ship and stagecoach. What the two poet colleagues would have thought of today's smartphone zombies, who only look up from the screen in an emergency, can only be guessed at.
The dichotomy of feelings between the poets and the media is mutual. In the editorial offices, the subject of poetry outweighs the skepticism that attaches to all topics that are suspected of presupposing prior knowledge. Careful not to treat their readers as supporters of a conceited educational concept, the newspaper publishers are narrowing down the range of what is reasonable. This means that public discourse is limited to the Western literary tradition and contemporary literature is only viewed under the spotlight of the bestseller list.
Of course, the private media are not educational institutions. Their abbreviated access to literary tradition is not a cause, but a symptom of change. As an advertising medium, newspapers have to focus more and more consistently on what promises to get the reader's attention. And the newspaper reader, insofar as he is researched and measured, apparently by far the majority does not want to learn anything about sophisticated or unusual cultural products.
This finding is hardly surprising when you compare it with the figures that every poet publisher will have to confirm with grudging teeth. Poetry has plenty of authors, publishers, sponsors, advocates, and critics, but few readers outside of these circles.
At a loss
And so the poetry is in the fight for a place in public discourse on a losing streak. It is not read and therefore practically not discussed, and vice versa. We are far from Friedrich Schlegel's idea of a productive, eternal literary conversation, the practical implementation of which was already a problem in the early romantic era. Why does every attempt at a conversation about poetry fail? And why is it still worth the try?
The answer to both questions is one and the same: Because poetry is considered "difficult" and reading it frustrates the desire for clarity. Typically, lyric poetry cannot be read and understood immediately like a factual text or realistic narrative text. Often it is bathed in the subjective coloring of a lyrical self, or tonal, graphic or even linguistic elements dominate the essence of a poem - and not the mere communication of a specific content.
Poems must appear to be overwhelming to the intimidated reader if he strives to understand a poem as an intellectual judgment, i.e. if he claims to fully grasp it conceptually. When looking at an abstract painting or listening to a symphony, one is ready to indulge in the free play of the emotional forces. With word art, on the other hand, a solid understanding is always strived for, which is not available with most lyrical forms.
The desire for linguistic clarity and unambiguity - which certainly corresponds to a natural human longing for orientation and security - is accommodated by the populist parties. They claim to have the only correct assessment of every situation. They expect unequivocal allegiance from their followers. Doubts about their presentation, an independent review or a careful weighing of pros and cons: none of this is desirable.
What populists suggest is fraudulent. The world, the problems and their solutions are by no means clear and unambiguous. A democratic culture of discourse requires questioning and differentiation, but we are further away than ever. A debate about the relevance of truth and journalism has arisen around fake news.
But the loud argument about true and false drowns out voices of differentiation. A society that does not want to be the manipulative mass of populists needs the courage to avoid the premature dualism of true and false and of good and bad and to remain open to the ambiguous and the unfamiliar.
Reading poetry is at the same time a field of practice and a place of empowerment, where one can learn and practice dealing with ambiguity, multilayeredness and perspectives. Anyone who takes a poetic work of art seriously and tries to understand the ambiguity of its meaning and the volatility of its truth claims, will learn that there is not one correct interpretation - but different interpretations, each supported by different contexts, arguments and approaches.
The "Avenidas" test case
The fact that the ability to think and talk about poetically ambiguous things is not at its best shows nothing better than when - which happens seldom enough - a poem becomes the focus of public debate. The dispute over the overpainting of the poem "Avenidas" by Eugen Gomringer on the facade of a Berlin university showed that students and employees of a higher educational institution, as well as large parts of the media public, are unable to understand a poetic text as such.
The fact that the students expressed their associations, feelings and fears about the text was the very legitimate beginning of a reading. But with the reproachful expression of state of mind, the examination of the work of art ended again. From the presence of an "admirer" in a poem about avenues, flowers and women, it was inferred directly that a sexist situation was portrayed in an affirmative manner, and the poem's author was directly charged with it.
The joke about Gomringer's concrete poetry, that it works with the words as pure graphic material and in no way claims to be a statement about the non-linguistic world, is pearled off on the student. But no one wanted to dwell on the question of what other possible interpretations would allow the admirer to join the constellation of the other elements.
A beginning in the poem
The willingness to endure the overwhelming experience of ambiguity has apparently been lost. One is after the clear judgment. Anyone who does not take a clear position will be taken advantage of and trumped in the debate. This is a bad starting point for a large number of current socio-political issues - such as the change in gender relations and identities.
Here, those who do not have a hearing for ambiguities and undertones miss the most important thing and miss the chance to sound out the new horizon in which the new phenomena only become recognizable.
We cannot help but go through the world interpreting. The reflection on truth and facts is laudable, but it is not enough. Because the world does not consist of facts, it is an ensemble of our interpretations. "Come on, lay the world out with you," demanded Paul Celan. You shouldn't have to say that twice to a society that is currently switching to a competence-oriented education system. A start could be made with the manageable world of a short poem.
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