Why Poetry Isn’t Read: Need For Narrative?
Poetry was once actually popular. As recently as the Nineteenth Century the publication of a book of poetry could catapult the poet to the status of famous author. When in 1812 Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (a story of the travels of rebellious, disillusioned young man searching for meaning to his life) was published, it became an immediate best seller. The poet Lord Byron wrote “I awoke one morning and found myself famous."
But poetry was already facing serious competition from the new kid on the block who had moved into the literary neighbourhood about a hundred years earlier. The first English novel is often said to be Robinson Crusoe published in 1719. The literacy rate had doubled since Shakespeare’s time, and more and more people were reading books. And what had always been central to ‘literature’, whether as theatre or even oral storytelling, was narrative. People wanted characters and plots. People wanted stories. Even in the 1800’s poems were still predominately narrative, but the prose of a novel was more flexible and, importantly, more accessible to the average reader.
So poets moved out of what had become a commercial centre and built their own community—and concentrated on doing what poems do best: expressing concisely what seems inexpressible. So most poetry since has been lyric, rather than narrative.
Nevertheless, many poems still contain a narrative component. And, arguably, poetry really is better equipped to probe deeply into character than is the novel.
And then of course it has to be said that many novels, or parts of them, really are poetry.