Why It Matters That More Americans Read Poetry Now

We are not living in the end times for the arts, even if public arts and humanities institutions in the United States remain criminally underfunded, writes Eric Weiskott.

November 19, 2018
 
 
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In September, the National Endowment for the Arts published surprising new data: poetry reading in the United States has almost doubled over five years. A 2012 NEA survey had found that only 7 percent of Americans had read poetry in the previous year, while the 2017 survey found 12 percent had. The NEA previewed these data in a blog post back in June.

As a poet and a teacher of poetry and poetics, I naturally welcome the good news, even if the 12 percent readership still places poetry, statistically, somewhere between taking acting classes (7 percent in 2012) and attending a performance of salsa music (29 percent in 2012). While I’d like to believe it’s my annual Studies in Poetry undergraduate seminar that’s made the difference, I think something else is going on.

To place the numbers in context, consider the circumstances under which poetry normally enters public consciousness. Poetry has been making some notably contentious headlines lately. As I discussed in Inside Higher Ed last year, students at Yale University made national news when they circulated a petition demanding that the English department decolonize its poetry curriculum. The petition was eventually successful, prompting Yale English to revise the major and create a new course, World Anglophone Literature.

This summer, a scandal unfolded at The Nation around the inclusion of white poet Anders Carlson-Wee’s poem “How-To,” which some people saw as racist and ableist in its adoption of African American Vernacular English and the word “crippled.” The poem took up the voice of a person experiencing homelessness and addressed itself to a prospective panhandler. Carlson-Wee and The Nation’s two poetry editors, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, have issued heartfelt apologies for printing the poem. The about-face generated its own harsh criticism from those who bristle at what they characterize as misplaced political correctness.

There is a paradox here. According to the NEA, many more Americans are reading poetry now and presumably enjoying it, but poetry usually only makes headlines at moments of crisis and cultural conflict. Perhaps precisely because it is a marginal activity in the contemporary United States, poetry becomes a vehicle for culture wars.

Yet it does matter that more people in this country are reading it now. After decades of slow but steady decline, the 2017 survey results on poetry reading mark a return to 2002 levels. In my Inside Higher Ed essay last year, I pointed to new kinds of higher education instruction that mix canonical literary texts like Chaucer with contemporary poets and lyricists from around the world. Some examples include the work of Hamilton playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda and the poet and spoken-word artist Patience Agbabi, author of Telling Tales, a modernized adaptation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. My university invited Agbabi to give a public reading last year, and my Chaucer class attended the reading after having discussed selected poems from Telling Tales in class.

That said, there is a risk of overestimating the impact of higher education, which has never been the only institutional home for poetry. The NEA data point instead to demographic and generational change. Women, millennials and people of color (these categories, of course, intersect) account for a disproportionate percentage of the gains in poetry reading since 2012, a shift that encompasses both urban and rural dwellers. If anyone is saving poetry today, it is these groups. As with political activism, they are doing the work to forge vital poetry communities online and off-line.

A related contributing factor to poetry’s dramatic comeback, highlighted by the NEA blog post, must be the prominence of poetry on social media. William Carlos Williams’s poem “This Is Just To Say” (“I have eaten / the plums / that were in / the icebox …”) has become a perennial 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, 1986, has 168,000 followers. Rupi Kaur, age 25, is arguably the most-read poet in the world through her viral posts on Instagram, where she has nearly three million followers. Social media haven’t created new poets, but they have helped young poets connect with new audiences and, to a certain extent, democratized poetry reading -- fluidly moving inside and outside of the academy.

That’s something worth celebrating.

Before this year, most headlines about poetry in the United States had predicted its ultimate demise. A classic in this genre is Dana Gioia’s 1991 essay in The Atlantic, “Can Poetry Matter?” Whether arguing that the death of poetry is avoidable or unavoidable, tragic or irrelevant, these essays are nostalgic. They invariably end up drawing a contrast between poetry today and poetry back then, in a loosely defined golden age when everyone had The Iliad memorized. The problem with golden ages is that they only ever seem to crop up in the rearview mirror. Indeed, much about the boys’ club of mid-20th-century university poetry is not worth mourning. (There’s a hilarious Alice Notley poem in which the University of Iowa poetry scene turns out to be “a lot of / dumb fucks I already know,” “Those befoibled guys / who think -- you know -- / the poetic moment’s a pocket in / pool; where can I publish it.”)

Rather than signaling a return to a golden age of poetry, which never existed for many of us, the NEA survey heralds a moment in which poets, professors, students and casual readers are all coming to poetry in appreciably greater numbers. It’s the kind of trend that is slow rather than punchy, not likely to produce a single crowning achievement even if it occasionally produces a scandal. The tipping point may lie in the future, as millennials assume positions of greater authority in the arts, universities and related industries.

For now, one thing is certain: the latest NEA survey refutes narratives of inevitable cultural decline, post-truth dystopias or simply the death of poetry. We are not living in the end times for the arts, even if public arts and humanities institutions in the United States remain criminally underfunded. The kids are all right, and new forms of community around poetry are just getting started.

Bio

Eric Weiskott is an associate professor of English at Boston College.

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