Poetry is Going Extinct, Government Data Shows
by William Skink
If you have read a poem by either myself or another poet at 4&20 Blackbirds, congratulations, you are bucking a trend of declining interest spanning at least two decades. The Washington Post, you see, has the empirical evidence that Poetry is going extinct. It’s sobering data that speaks to something, just what I’m not sure. From the link:
Given the widespread availability of poetry on the internet, “it’s possible that poetry’s audience might be greater now than ever,” wrote Kate Angus in The Millions last year. But the numbers below show that that’s emphatically not the case. Some people are still reading it, although that number has been dropping steadily over the past two decades.
In 1992, 17 percent of Americans had read a work of poetry at least once in the past year. 20 years later that number had fallen by more than half, to 6.7 percent. Those numbers come from the national Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), a massive survey that’s run every few years as part of the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.
The survey finds that the decline in poetry readership is unique among the arts — particularly the literary arts. “Since 2002, the share of poetry-readers has contracted by 45 percent—resulting in the steepest decline in participation in any literary genre,” the study concludes. Over the past 20 years, the downward trend is nearly perfectly linear — and doesn’t show signs of abating.
According to the latest numbers, poetry is less popular than jazz. It’s less popular than dance, and only about half as popular as knitting. The only major arts category with a narrower audience than poetry is opera — not exactly surprising, given the contemporary state of that art.
So what gives? How has poetry clocked a nearly perfect downward linear trend?
I’ve gotten some recent feedback on a few poetry posts, and I’m always very appreciative. I’ve intentionally written topical poems for immediate consumption to show poetry can respond in real time to world events. It’s an admittedly small gesture with limited impact, but obstinance in the face of futility is a stance I’m comfortable maintaining.
I’m not sure where poetry went wrong. My tendency is to scrutinize the privileged MFA assembly lines fast-tracking literary production, but that’s a somewhat recent phenomena. Something happened to poetry before the gluttony of grad students flooded a dwindling market with poetry that appeals to only a few small literary circles.
I wish one recent publication could better transcend the declining interest in poetry. Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen, is a powerful work where the author lays out the inner-monologue processing the racial dynamics of everyday stabs and sleights.
For my own selfish reasons, I wish poetry had more influence in popular culture. That it’s trending itself into irrelevance is perhaps just a symptom of a larger societal malaise setting in.