Rudyard Kipling and exactly why modern poetry systematically sucks

I believe modern poetry is in terrible shape, and its low popularity is the appropriate, deserved result of its decline as an art form.

I mean poetry of the type that properly educated poets write these days: as few words as possible, little meter and almost no rhyme, impressionistic, often ungrammatical, almost always aggressively pointless. I mean measly secretions like this, rated the fifth best original poem ever posted on reddit:

Had the worst dream today.
I almost didn’t get out of bed.

Why the hell is it getting worse?

Is it possible I am depressed, or am I just overthinking things?

I don’t know if I’m depressed or not.
What’s an official diagnosis?

I think of drivel like this as the polar opposite of my favorite poet, Rudyard Kipling. He likes to go on a bit longer than necessary, he uses rhyme and meter and usually repeats phrases or entire lines to create more structure, has an explicit narrative and a coherent language and always a clearly discernible point. He is also basically the reason I write poetry.  I’ve been writing poems since some Kipling poems in German translations of the “The Jungle Book” and “The Second Jungle Book” were so amazing when I was about 7 years old.

Luckily, the translator Curt Abel-Musgrave had done a decent job on them. For example, he interpreted the opening of The Law of the Jungle

Now this is the law of the jungle,
     as old and as true as the sky,
And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper,
     but the wolf that shall break it must die.

…into German as follows:

Dies sind die Gesetze des Dschungels,
     so alt und so klar wie das Licht;
Der Wolf, der sie hält, wird gedeihen,
     und sterben der Wolf, der sie bricht.

I must have started writing poems shortly after, because I remember standing on a big stage at a Christmas celebration when I was nine years old, reciting a poem I had written myself. It was customary that children recite poems at these celebrations, and I was confident enough to inflict my own on a large room full of strangers, and to pick a way longer one than anybody else bothered to recite. It was in rhyming couplets, roughly 12 of them, and was about the month of December, meaning mostly St Nicholas’ Day, Christmas and the New Year’s fireworks. I learned it by heart and even thirty years later I remember some of it – terrible by any grown-up standard of course, but developed enough to be not the first, nor the second, nor the tenth I could have written by that point. And because it was a linear narrative, obnoxiously didactic, fairly long, grammatically correct and had verbatim repetitions, it was clearly Kipling-esque, although I would not have known this at the time. This was just the way I thought poetry had to be.

In the meantime I have read much other poetry, including much modern poetry, and I liked a few modern poems, especially the (comparatively highly structured) “Howl“. But I always kept what seemed to me like an essentially random preference for rhyming, metered, long, narrative poems. Only about two years ago did I notice that several of my favorite poems that were like this, such as “If–” and “Hymn of the Breaking Strain“, all had the same author, and it was Kipling again.

My preference for Kipling makes me normal among non-poets. Kipling’s poem “If–” for example is one of the most famous poems ever written in the English language. (And one of the few outside of Shakespeare ever translated into German really well.) And my disdain for nearly all modern poetry is also widely shared.

Isn’t that curious, though? Why would so many modern poets be so wrong? That’s a question that has been asked and answered before but I am so immodest as to claim to know a better answer.

Poetry has entered the same failure mode that architecture is also stuck in and that is also at the core of the many problems of the humanities. Participants in these fields aren’t being judged by outsiders (the public), but by other insiders. So they optimize for what other participants like, not for what the public likes. This is a rational result of their pursuit of economic success, since by far the most likely path to long-term financial stability in these fields is a position in academia, preferably with tenure. These positions are given out based on the assessment of their peers, so that is who they optimize their work to please. This creates a dynamic that explains everything about why poetry, architecture and the humanities are in such a terrible state these days. Lets follow this through the main problems of modern poetry.

  • No devastating criticism. This is the big one. When you’re judged by your fellows everyone holds back, because they’re going to be on the receiving end another day, and because everyone may plausibly meet again. This is different from the entertainment market, which delivers brutal judgement and makes the vast majority of artists eventually give up and get a regular job. Guess what, without that weeding out of poor and mediocre work, quality not only becomes much less obvious, it also becomes much less clearly the thing to aim for.
  • Lack of popularity. When you do your work for the tenure committee, disregarding the public, the public will quickly stop expecting anything good from you. This gives a hypocritical veneer to the self-serving but sensible choice to disregard the tastes of the public: since “they don’t get it” anyway, disregarding them feels justified.
  • Long-term lack of improvement despite this unpopularity. This is not just a single generation of poets, and architects, and scholars, going through a weird abortive fashion, it is a structural problem of incentives clad in a veneer of hypocritical norms. Any individual artist can defect from the consensus only by sacrificing their own chance of any financial stability. Incentives dominate everything and the incentives here completely overpower individual artistic choices.
  • Emphasis on originality rather than individual merit. Other poets will have seen many more poems than members of the public ever will, and they’ll be bored if you just do the thing that everyone knows will work, and that everyone knows most normal people want. In architecture you don’t just do ornament and plants. In the humanities you don’t just collect a large amount of data and produce testable predictions. And in poetry you don’t just do what Kipling did.
  • Many creations in low effort formats. A corrollary of optimizing for originality. To produce original ideas you mostly have to have lots of ideas, not refine and polish just one or two for a long time. This punishes highly structured formats such as the common metre that take a long time to get right and rewards “free verse” (really often just pretty thoughts with too many line breaks) because that can be jotted down in a few inspired seconds.
  • Praise for sophistication (rather than for good prima facie aesthetics or functionality). To praise sophistication serves two purposes: it reinforces the field’s ivory tower norms and it compliments the person doing the praising, because it takes sophistication to know sophistication. Unfortunately some unsophisticated tools like the light/night/bright or breath/death rhymes just work, and to neglect them in favor of sophistication is to lose something of value.
  • No direct competition on the level of individual works. It would be considered a crass violation of norms to take someone else’s work and explicitly attempt to improve upon it. Because that would imply direct criticism. Of course you can be, even should be, “inspired by” other work without attempting to supersede it. This is again exactly the same thing in architecture and the humanities. Compare music, where cover versions of songs are a normal thing and it is not unusual for one version of a song to be widely considered the best one.
  • Defectors leaving for other fields. I speculate that like the previous points, this too is a wider trend. If you’d rather do good work than play the signaling games inside academia, you do have other options. I’ve already said that I think the best poets leave poetry for songwriting. For architects, I guess if you think you’re up for merciless judgement you can design retail spaces. And scholars who don’t mind more rigorous standards of quality can go into economics or into the life sciences. (This last one is what I did, so no doubt I’m being self-serving.) Of course this also perpetuates the system, as only the people who are satisfied enough with the state of things remain.

The point of this is: poets today probably aren’t a lot less talented than Kipling was. There is even good reason to believe they could do better than he ever did: after all they’re much more numerous, have way more time on their hands, have better tools such as rhyming dictionaries and aren’t stuck espousing some of Kipling’s terrible ideas, such as colonialism and Christianity. But poets today are stuck in an Inadequate Equilibrium that is genuinely hard to appreciate or even break out of without incurring a severe financial penalty.

That Kipling was different was also because of financial incentives. He was chiefly a journalist; he always aimed and trained to write in the way people liked and would easily remember. This includes poetry, arguably not the most important part of his writing. Kipling needed to optimize for popularity because he had to sell. What he did not need is approval of his peers. (By the time he got the Nobel Prize in Literature anyway, he was old enough to be stuck in the habit.) And the fact of the matter is that when it comes to poetry, the public wants it in the way Kipling wrote it: constrained by rules and regularity to distinguish it from easy normal writing and to make it more memorable, musical (implying rhyme and meter), narrative and with a clear subject matter.

The perspective of properly educated poets is still worth reading, especially because what apparently remains the definitive take on Kipling was written by no lesser man than George Orwell himself! I strongly recommend reading it in full.

He puts Kipling’s and certain other poetry into a category he calls “good bad poems” and defines that category as follows:

A good bad poem is a graceful monument to the obvious.

And that is exactly what I want the Seven Secular Sermons to be! Monumental, all about glorifying obvious fact, and hopefully also graceful. If I can make what Orwell would call a “good bad poem” I would have succeeded. If not, I think Orwell’s succinct criticism of some of Kipling’s poetry as “sententious” still remains, I think anyone would agree, a fair description of the Sermons. That means Kipling and I share a certain familiarity in style and approach, and I’m happy with that.

I don’t think I would have liked Kipling if I’d met him. But I like his poetry better than him. I’m sure he wouldn’t have liked me either. In fact, he would have indicted both me and the world I live in as something between decadent and despicable. His taste for highly regular poetry, however, means he would have thought the Sermons at least worth trying, if unfortunately blasphemous. In a weird irrational fashion, this counterfactual feels like a form of thanks to him for the passion he introduced me to, back when I was a little boy.