The deaths of Derek Walcott and Chuck Berry prompt the question: what’s going to happen to poetry? In their very different ways, the two men worked on opposite sides of the great divide in reading that has grown up since the rise of amplified music. At least since the invention of printing, poetry has been written to be read in silence and perhaps in solitude. The rhythmic subtleties of Browning, Eliot, Graves and Walcott, too, all depend on the reader’s close attention to the voice they can only hear in their heads. This was not always or everywhere so; there are traditions of incantation and rhodomontade. Kipling and GK Chesterton could both write to a beat that pounds along, and the bouncy ones have been some of the most widely popular poets, but they have not often produced the words that readers have cupped in their hearts, lights sheltered from the wind.
The pleasures of subtly rhythmic poetry depend on hearing the beat that is not played, the pattern that persists in absence, in the same way that music can only really be listened to by hearing the gaps between the notes. Omnipresent amplified music designed to be half-listened to, along with the general noisiness of contemporary life, blunts our ability to hear anything not made explicit, and when that goes much of the traditional skill of reading vanish with it. Poetry is, at the very least, language sharpened to its finest edge. There should be no spare words in a poem any more than there should be any missing. Much of the bad poetry of the past, which is not so much unread as almost impossible to read today, violates these rules and won’t be missed when it is completely forgotten. But what about the good stuff that may also be forgotten?
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