Vogelweid’s Grave

The Future of Poetry

There is a legend, retold by Longfellow, about the medieval bard Walter von der Vogelweid. The story goes that when he died, he left all he had to the birds, who had first taught him song. He willed all his wealth to a monastery, with instruction to put out food for the birds on his grave every day at noon. This the monks faithfully did for some time after his death, and each day at noon more and more birds gathered at the grave. But one day, an abbot decided it was a waste of money and declared the practice discontinued. That day, the birds came to Vogelweid’s grave at noon – in vain.

A few weeks ago, poetry was declared dead in the pages of the New York Times. It was hardly breaking news, however. Anyone can see that very few people read even Longfellow, much less Vogelweid. Maybe our educational institutions simply aren’t equipping my generation to appreciate poetry; professor Anthony Esolen noted regarding his college freshman classes: “If the rare young person in a thousand could read Shakespeare with ease, it was almost certain that he had not gone to school.” Or maybe our modern way of life just doesn’t feed our poetic side; the author of the New York Times article argued that modern technology has cut us off from nature, making us incapable of writing good poetry. Whatever the cause, poetry does not hold the prominent place in society that it once did; and the poetry that is fostered by society isn’t generally very good – as evidenced by the fact that very few people actually read it.

The birdseed has been discontinued, as it were.

Poetry is for the Birds

But the state of poetry in the 21st century is not as bad as some commentators think.

Longfellow’s poem ends like this:

But around the vast cathedral,
By sweet echoes multiplied,
Still the birds repeat the legend,
And the name of Vogelweid.

Vogelweid’s birds, though scattered, kept singing after the birdseed was gone. Likewise, good poetry is still being created. It has merely reverted to the purview of wandering bards, as in the “Dark Ages.” Poetry has “come home,” you might say, to the singer-songwriters. There is good poetry being made in my generation and by my generation. But it won’t be found – or only rarely – in our major academic institutions or in the mainstream of popular culture. What was once High Art now survives primarily as Folk Art.

Scattered Bards

Take for example a couple stanzas from the song “Rivers” by Kristian Mattson, on the subject of his recent divorce:

… so, finally, the nighttime comes
There is no lot to cast the blame
No need to hide
No fear who I'd meet
In some grocery lane

This is the fire of leaving pains
When the love is gone, but the need remains
Into the shivering cold of day
When the house is gone, but the street remains
Oh, I guess it's true
I guess these rivers never knew

Or Marcus Mumford in “Beloved,” on witnessing the death of his grandmother:

Are you afraid?
However could you not be
In this rosy light?
This is strange
I feel a hand come through the mirror
Pointing at the light
Pointing at the light we never see
As you put your feathered arms over me

Before you leave
You must know you are beloved
And before you leave
Remember I was with you
And as you leave
I won't hold you back, beloved

Or this stanza from Karen Peris of The Innocence Mission, in her understated and profound 2020 album See You Tomorrow, on the incurable and inexpressible longing central to the human experience:

Field and sky undivided
And your coat a yellow sun
And you want to reach out
To speak now
To be loved as much as anyone
And scenes driving out here
Can easily make us cry
Though we don't know how to
Say why

Or a section from Roo Pane’s “Little Giant,” a numinous song about the strange experience of receiving unconditional love:

Who said it's easy to be loved
When you look over your shoulder
And only see the wasteland?
You’ve just got to carry what you can
Have the heart of a giant
But know you're a man

“Things that Can Just Barely Be Said”

There are many, many such poems, if you know where to find them. These poems, like all good poems, yield more meaning with more contemplation, expressing “things that can just barely be said.” They don’t suffer from comparison to the best poetry of the previous centuries; rather, these poets are in dialogue with the poets of the ages, asking (and occasionally even answering) perennial questions – probing the timeless mysteries of the Unseen Realm, of Nature’s insensibility to human grief, of the greatness and smallness of the human heart, of the eternal Unmet Need inside every person. (Of course, these verses don’t follow the formal structures of the various types of written poetry, because they are songs: they are meant to be sung, so the words and melody are crafted to complement each other.)

In the past, such folk poets would be “born to blush unseen” – without institutions (princes, patrons, monasteries) preserving and propagating their work, they would only be known in their own small communities. But things are different today. The advent of the internet makes it possible for anyone to discover these artists. We aren’t beholden to the Gatekeepers anymore, forced to consume what they prescribe; if there is any good art being created, we can choose that instead. And we should.

Likewise, the classic works of the past are now accessible to anyone who wants to learn the art of poetry from them – even if they have to do it out of school hours. The treasures of Hopkins, Yeats, Chaucer – even obscure and once difficult-to-find poets like Vogelweid – are instantly available to anyone who wants them. This is more than a bit ironic, since the internet is one of the things often blamed for the demise of poetry (and culture in general) in my generation. To borrow a quip from Tolkien: “I will forgive the Mordor-gadget some of their sins” if they get this poetry to me.

It’s easy to bemoan the death of art in the West, and look back longingly at what was created in the past. But if you care about the survival of what is good in our culture, it is your duty and privilege not merely to hold on to the good poetry of yesterday, but also to create and experience the good poetry of today and tomorrow.

It is out there, waiting. You won’t find it – hardly ever – in the glistening towers of Hollywood or Harvard. You’ll find it in the towns and villages, on the tongues of ordinary people in out-of-the-way places. Though Vogelweid’s grave now lies bare and swept clean, you may hear, here and there, scattered birds sing.

Further Reading

Daniel Witt (BS Ecology, BA History) is a writer and English teacher living in Amman, Jordan. He enjoys playing the mandolin, reading weird books, and foraging for edible plants.

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