How Poetry Diminished
ARGUMENTS about the decline of poetry’s cultural importance are not new. In American letters they date back to the nineteenth century. But the modern debate might be said to have begun in 1934 when Edmund Wilson published the first version of his controversial essay “Is Verse a Dying Technique?” Surveying literary history, Wilson noted that verse’s role had grown increasingly narrow since the eighteenth century. In particular, Romanticism’s emphasis on intensity made poetry seem so “fleeting and quintessential” that eventually it dwindled into a mainly lyric medium. As verse–which had previously been a popular medium for narrative, satire, drama, even history and scientific speculation–retreated into lyric, prose usurped much of its cultural territory. Truly ambitious writers eventually had no choice but to write in prose. The future of great literature, Wilson speculated, belonged almost entirely to prose.