Keats to Kanye: yesterday's poet and today's rap artist


Since receiving a piece of mail emblazoned with a Sylvia Plath stamp, I've been left wondering why English majors and the United States Postal Service seem to be the only remaining people at all interested in poetry.

Gone are the days when poets were at the forefront of literary celebrity. We live in a poetic culture dominated by safe, vanilla mainstays like Robert Frost and Shel Silverstein. They aren't making any headlines, much less using verse as an agent of social change like their predecessors.

I often wonder why students dismiss poetry as the product of a bygone era, why they groan upon learning of poetry assignments and despise poetry with every fiber of their beings.  Is it because they consider it incomprehensible, a lofty thing with no bearing on day-to-day life, a thing better suited to the ivory tower than to the classroom? Is it because they perceive it as a relic, something as outdated and useless as the Segway, a last refuge of old white guys?

Or has poetry not fallen by the wayside, but simply evolved with the changing times, perhaps even evolved into something unrecognizable?

Perhaps the contemporary poets in question are not academics cloistered in their ivory towers, but rather those with private jets and Porsches to whom drug dealers and scantily-clad women flock.

If we accept rap as a veritable medium of verse, poetry's circumstances improve exponentially . Rather than seizing in its death throes, poetry has never been more appreciated, much less by such a diverse demographic of ages and ethnicities. Loathe though I am to say it, perhaps Kanye is the new Keats.

I am not a poet by any means — I prefer the poetry of prose's rhythms, and I shrink down in my seat much the same as anyone else when asked to share my measly poetic offerings with the class. However, I don't think that writing poetry is necessary to appreciating, understanding and venerating poetry.

As Emerson once claimed, there is a poet within all of us. Contrary to popular belief, poetry is not something inaccessible or incomprehensible. The preliminary haze of outdated language may well obscure the sonnets and the work of the romantics, but contemporary poets such as Richard Siken are revolutionizing the genre. Siken is writing things so visceral, so gut-wrenching, that his verse twists itself up inside of the reader.

Regardless of differences in taste, there is a poem for every predisposition, a poet for every predilection.

Readers should not dismiss poetry as a whole because they have only encountered drudgery and have yet to encounter poetry's wonder. When the right poem comes along, it and the reader will dovetail like a key slipping into a lock.

John Keats famously wrote, "A thing of beauty is a joy forever: Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness."

Even in a modern age where rap is consuming poetry as we know it and the classics are falling by the wayside much like oral recitation of verse long ago, poetry cannot be snuffed out by its lack of popularity in the changing times.

For Keats, life itself was "a thing of beauty," despite poverty and disease. Its translation into an abstract perception of beauty was a constant that could never die. I think the same is true of poetry in the contemporary world.

Though its future may look dim, beauty always finds a way.

Westenfeld is a freshman from Fort Wayne, Ind., planning to major in English literature and creative writing.