June 22, 2022

Poetry reading is on the rise (opinion)


In September, the National Endowment for the Arts released startling new data: Poetry reading in the United States has nearly doubled in five years. A 2012 NEA survey found that only 7% of Americans had read poetry in the previous year, while the 2017 survey found 12% had. The NEA presented this data in a blog post in June.

As a poet and professor of poetry and poetics, I naturally welcome the good news, even if the 12% of readers still place poetry, statistically, somewhere between taking acting classes (7% in 2012) and attending to a salsa music performance (29 percent in 2012). As much as I would like to believe that it was my annual undergraduate poetry studies seminar that made the difference, I think something else is happening.

To put the numbers in context, consider the circumstances under which poetry normally enters the public consciousness. Poetry has made particularly controversial headlines lately. As I mentioned in Inside higher education Last year, Yale University students made national news by circulating a petition demanding that the English department decolonize its poetry program. The petition was ultimately successful, prompting Yale English to revise the major and create a new course, World Anglophone Literature.

This summer a scandal erupted at The nation around the inclusion of white poet Anders Carlson-Wee’s “How-To” poem, which some people saw as racist and capable in its adoption of African-American vernacular English and the word “crippled”. The poem used the voice of a homeless person and addressed a potential beggar. Carlson-Wee and The nationThe two poetry editors of, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, offered their sincere apologies for the printing of the poem. The about-face has generated its own harsh criticism from those who bristle at what they call inappropriate political correctness.

There is a paradox here. Many more Americans now read and likely enjoy poetry, according to the NEA, but poetry typically only makes headlines in times of crisis and cultural conflict. Perhaps precisely because it is a marginal activity in the contemporary United States, poetry becomes a vehicle for cultural wars.

Yet it is important that more people in this country read it now. After decades of slow but steady decline, the results of the 2017 Poetry Reading Survey mark a return to 2002 levels. Inside higher education essay last year I reported new types of higher education that mix canonical literary texts like Chaucer with contemporary poets and lyricists from around the world. Some examples include the work of Hamilton the playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda and the poet and speech artist Patience Agbabi, author of Tell stories, a modernized adaptation of Chaucer Canterbury Tales. My university invited Agbabi to give a public reading last year, and my Chaucer class attended the reading after discussing selected poems from Tell stories in class.

That said, we risk overestimating the impact of higher education, which has never been the only institutional home for poetry. Rather, the NEA data indicates demographic and generational change. Women, millennials, and people of color (these categories, of course, overlap) have made up a disproportionate percentage of poetry reading gains since 2012, a shift that encompasses both city dwellers and rural dwellers. If anyone saves poetry today, it’s these groups. As with political activism, they do the work of forging vital poetry communities online and offline.

A related factor to poetry’s dramatic comeback, highlighted by the NEA blog post, has to be the importance of poetry on social media. William Carlos Williams’ poem “This Is Just To Say” has become an eternal meme that can be applied to any political or social situation. . Millennial poets of color like Warsan Shire and Kaveh Akbar have tens of thousands of Twitter followers. The poet Eve Ewing, born the same year as me, in 1986, has 168,000 subscribers. Rupi Kaur, 25, is arguably the most widely read poet in the world thanks to her viral posts on Instagram, where she has nearly three million followers. Social media hasn’t created new poets, but it has helped young poets connect with new audiences and, to some extent, democratize poetry reading – moving seamlessly within and outside the academy.

It is something that deserves to be celebrated.

Prior to this year, most of the headlines on poetry in the United States predicted its final demise. A classic in this genre is Dana Gioia’s 1991 essay in Atlantic, “Can poetry count? Whether they argue that poetry’s death is preventable or inevitable, tragic or irrelevant, these essays are nostalgic. They invariably end up drawing a contrast between the poetry of today and the poetry of then, in a loosely defined golden age when everyone had The Iliad memorized. The problem with the Golden Ages is that they never seem to show up except in the rearview mirror. Indeed, much of the boys’ club of mid-twentieth-century academic poetry is not worth mourning. (There’s a hilarious poem by Alice Notley in which the scene from the University of Iowa poetry turns out to be “a lot of / stupid fuckings that I already know,” “Those dumb / thinking guys – – you know – / the poetic moment is a pocket in / pool; where can I post it. “

Rather than signaling a return to a golden age of poetry, which has never existed for many of us, the NEA’s investigation heralds a time when poets, professors, students, and casual readers all come to poetry in significantly greater numbers. It’s the kind of trend that is slow rather than hard-hitting, unlikely to produce a single crowning glory even if it sometimes produces an outrage. The tipping point could be in the future, as millennials take on positions of greater authority in the arts, universities and allied industries.

For now, one thing is certain: the latest NEA investigation refutes accounts of inevitable cultural decline, post-truth dystopias, or simply the death of poetry. We are not living at the end of times for the arts, even though public institutions for the arts and humanities in the United States remain criminally underfunded. The children are doing well and new forms of community around poetry are just beginning.