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.

Ouch.

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.


  1. Regarding knitting, it was recently pointed out that the muscle memories used in that activity are identical to those used when rolling a joint. It may not be as popular as WaPo thinks.

    Reading poetry takes effort. As far as I have been able to observe, most people are unwilling to do any mental exercise that takes effort, whether it is examining evidence or reading a blog post beginning to end before commenting (including looking up and understanding what “MFA” means).

    This may be related to the rise of the Internet, but I am unwilling to put out the effort required to think that through.

  2. steve kelly

    The Washington Post, Brookings, Pew, NEA and perhaps the author of your linked article reveal some clues.

    Poetry, like contemporary art, my personal passion, is not a group event. It requires individual thought, creativity, and work, when all rolled together results in an original “work of art.”

    Now, which of our most powerful private and public institutions supports individuals who strive and excell in original thought that produces original artwork?

    If you have a group — dance, theatre, song, visual art — your chances of garnering support are vastly improved. Group think has directed the action in “the arts” as in business, and in society in general. It’s trending, one might say. Little wonder that those engaged in poetry and contemporary visual art are in the state they are.

    But is it popular? Make no mistake, this seemingly innocent question is out to kill non-conformity. Poetry and visual art is, of course, all about non-conformity. If it can’t be turned into a commodity, marketed, mass produced, and monetized, what good is it?

    So, like journalists, activists, dissenters, and the whole lot of free-thinking variants that have found creative ways to persist in our homogeneous culture, poetry and contemporary visual arts are on the hit list of threats — real and imagined — to full spectrum dominance. No soup for (subversives) you.

  3. Turner

    There has been a problem with “modern” poetry for years, a problem making it inaccessible to most people. The problem is the elevation in importance of the private voice. The subject of such poems has become the poet’s personality.

    The romantics did this pretty well, but the best of them (Keats, Wordsworth, et al) dramatized their lives in ways that were not merely private. They offered their lives, their perceptions, as representative not idiosyncratic. Coleridge, writing about this depression in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” was trying to make a point about creativity. He wasn’t trying to elicit sympathy for having felt down.

    What often passes for poetry these days is rather trivial self-portraiture. Many poems offered at poetry readings I’ve attended dramatize the private, sometimes quirky, emotional world of the poet. They’re revealing, confessional, at times embarrassingly intimate. We’re supposed to congratulate their creators for their honesty, their courage in talking about various traumas. Asked about their poems, these poets sometimes describe them as therapeutic. They’re working out personal problems through their “art.” They’re seeking to develop their voice, to find power in self-expression.

    Good luck to them. But they shouldn’t expect me to sit through more than ten minutes of listening to them going on and on about their problems. Or trying to shock me by confessing to acts that no one in his right mind would commit.

    Skink’s poems can be a bit obscure (like many poets, he likes to shuffle reality and deal it out in a new way), but they tend to have a public voice. They’re about a world we all experience together. One of my favorite poets is Alexander Pope. He wrote about his world – especially those in it who were corrupt and pretentious – and made only passing references to his own life. We need more like him today.

    • lizard19

      there are a lot of ways poets have contributed to a sense inaccessibility, have earned their part in the general decline over time. the energy has moved else where, to slams, spoken word, hip hop, as Pete points out. I’ll try to add more when I have time.

  4. steve kelly

    Turner,

    Are you making a case for greater universality — a type of consistency — or more popular subject matter? Or both? Honest question.

    • Turner

      I’m not very interested in the popularity discussion. And I’m not sure how universal poetry needs to be. After all, our experience of the world is culturally and historically specific. I just think poetry needs to be about more than the peculiarities of the poet’s mind.

      • JC

        Cannot the peculiarities of the poet’s mind be a stage of internal growth and development, leading to superior work down the road?

        I might compare this to the work of a fledgling violin player who has talent but hasn’t yet learned how to harness it, and the practice sessions grate on the nerves… and unfortunately is practicing (performing) in public prematurely.

        Or for the contemporary artist, the early works of a poet might be similar to the sketching and drawing, painting and overpainting and flipping the canvas over as one explores and extends their medium, technique, perspective and color?

        But what I am saying presupposes that a poet’s best work is done as the poet matures, and not as a reflection of a young poet’s untarnished view of the world.

        Some of the best guitar work, in my opinion, has been done by musicians who are not “educated” on the instrument or music theory. John Fahey, for instance, is viewed as a “primitive” guitarist, as he was self taught. But as time goes on, his early style has taken on new meaning and found new adherents (myself included — nothing like working on a new style at my age!).

        So while contemporaneously, a poet working out his “issues” in a publics venue may be uncomfortable, who is to say that 30-60 years down the road that that work might not become iconic or meaningful — reflecting the early works of a genius yet to emerge?

  5. #Save the poems.

    Fixed it.

  6. JC

    I might add that the decline in poetry (as measured by people admitting to have read such in the last year) may not be as much about the poet and his material as it is a statement about the public.

    Poetry may be declining as our society becomes saturated with other forms of easily accessed media (read: internet) that consumes an inordinate amount of time that we once used to devote to simply reading books, magazines, and attending cultural events like recitals, readings, and improvisations.

    What’s to say that hip-hop, rap and spoken-word slams aren’t the contemporary cultural expressions replacing the beat, mystic, and naturalist poets of the first 65 years of the last century?

    Is it the poet’s fault that culture evolves, and doesn’t necessarily embrace his/her form? That capitalism drives media into consumable products that are easily packaged, marketed and sold (and poetry does not lend itself easily to contemporary advertising/propaganda techniques)? That western hegemony works to silence the voice of dissent, clarity and providence contained in the words of the prophet… written on subway walls?

    • petetalbot

      You beat me to the draw, JC. They’re using old metrics to measure poetry’s popularity. Why, there was just a well-attended poetry slam in Missoula, and hip-hop and rap artists (and lizards) could be the new Whitmans and Elliots and Cummings. Evolution, baby.

  7. larry kurtz

    Montana’s divide
    Drives deep into lizard and
    Worms ate into his brain.

  8. Poems need music.




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