Poetry is Dead, Ho-Hum Six Quotes from Virgil Thomson

Its death decreed with nauseous insistence, the stuff simply won’t die. In fact, it can be argued that poetry is being reborn today as spoken word, folk-song, open-mic rap, text message and audiobook. Taking us back to poetry’s oral origin: the sound of the human voice in Homer, Ovid, Indigenous myth and Norse saga. 

American composer Virgil Thomson — a famously difficult and take-no-prisoners critic — sets out six insights into the role of the poet in modern society:

  • Society today has no place for poets. Science, computing, big data, artificial intelligence, journalism, fiction, religion and politics – ancient bailiwicks all – are now closed to them.
  • Poetry doesn’t pay anything at all, of course. It won’t buy a beer, subway or bus fare, drugs or Netflix. Nor does it prevent the darkest despair from seizing them when all alone.
  • Everything poets do is desperate and excessive. They eat like pigs; starve, tramp, get arrested, steal, abscond, betray, blackmail and dope. They come down with every known disease, not the least being solitary dipsomania.
  • But some poets are truly brave with incredible loyalty; they are the last of honour and chivalry. 
  • Some people think poets are just being fanciful when they talk magic and sorcery. Not so. Poets are the only people in the world with any profound prescience about the unchaining of the dark forces that have so shaped and shaken the modern world.
  • The poet’s chief utility is to help us to fight those dark forces with evolutions not only picturesque — but sometimes salutary, instructive and grand.

Excerpts, Survival of an Earlier Civilization or Shades of Poets Dead and Gone

A Virgil Thomson Reader

1981

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