Poetry and the Decline of Civility

Today is National Poetry Day. There are so many ‘days’ in the year that I tend to ignore them, but poetry will always be something I treasure. Indeed, if I were given the choice of becoming a saint or a poet, I might have a little difficulty deciding. Happily, I have no choice. I’m not a poet, and sanctity seems ever further off. (Cue wry smile.) This morning, however, I was struck by a thought that I shall mull over for the rest of the day. My (limited) experience suggests that fewer people now care about poetry than in my youth, when we all committed to memory huge quantities of verse which became lodged in our inner landscapes, even among the most unliterary. Not just words but the best words, as Keats would say, became part of our subconscious. Are they still? I have my doubts, judging by the language I read and hear around me.

One effect of this, I think — and it is only one and probably an arguable one at that — can be seen in the loss of the fine-tuning of our emotions and the decline of civility. When Lady Thatcher died, many who had not even lived during her premiership were gleeful and expressed their glee in ways I found  small-minded and brutal. I felt a similar revulsion when I read the Daily Mail article about Ralph Milliband. One simply doesn’t say such things — only it appears we do. You may have noticed that it is becoming more and more difficult to escape other people’s use of profanity and vulgarity in tweets and FB updates or even casual conversation. Fuddy-duddy I may be, but the effort to find the right word, to express what one thinks and feels as well as one can —something the poet achieves as no other — is an essential part of what it means to be human. It is closely linked to civility, which is, after all, itself linked to being a good citizen, with all that that implies.

Poetry and citizenship: perhaps today a little dipping into the Greek poets is in order, for they understood both.

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