I’d like to begin by extending my sincere thanks both to Stacey and to David for inviting me to serve as a BAP guest blogger. I hardly need to remark on the rarity of forums of this sort, and I’m truly delighted to have the opportunity to engage with the wide and devoted community of readers and writers that this site represents.
For those of you who happen to know me, it won’t come as a great surprise to learn that this is my first attempt at blogging, and I beg your pardon in advance for any missteps as I endeavor to get my hands on the medium. I intend to use my time here simply to consider a few things that I've been batting around lately, and, while my musings are unlikely to coalesce into any sustained arguments, I’m hopeful that they will at least add up to a worthwhile week.
In collecting my thoughts for this series, I rather inevitably found myself contemplating the status and condition of American poetry today. Is the patient healthy? As I regarded its charts and vital signs, puzzling over possible diagnoses, I came upon this aptly-titled item in Richard Kenney’s One-Strand River:
Nobody at any rate reads it much. Your
citizenry have other forms of fun.
Still, who would wish to live in a culture
of which future anthropologists would say
Oddly, they had none?
Much has been made of the increasingly marginal position of poetry in contemporary American society. And not without reason: according to the NEA’s most recent Survey of Public Participation in the Arts report, the consumption of poetry is indeed on the decline. Readership dropped from roughly 12% of the adult population in 2002 to a little more than 8% in 2008. (It would be interesting to know what percentage of children read or are read poetry regularly; I suspect not only that the figure would be significantly higher, but that parents who read poetry to their children are not represented by the NEA’s findings.) In the plainest of terms, a little fewer than 19 million American adults read poetry with any regularity. For perspective’s sake, that amounts to a little less than one in five viewers of the 2010 Super Bowl (which was the most-watched television program in history) – still more than the USA’s LGBT(~5%) and vegetarian(~3%) communities combined. While the NEA’s findings certainly constitute bad news for poetry, we should take heart in knowing that readers of poetry still outnumber the resident populations of all but three states (California (~37 mil), Texas (~25 mil), and New York (~20 mil)). About as many people read poetry as live in Florida, which is roughly four times the size of Ireland.
I’ve surely belabored the point, but I mean only to demonstrate that despite its longstanding decline in popularity—Pound was already lamenting the public’s indifference to the medium in 1913—there is still a considerable audience for poetry. It may well be that readers of poetry are also overwhelmingly poets themselves, but surely the combination of writing and reading constitutes a compounded level of “participation” in the art, certainly greater than reading alone. (So far as I know, the NEA doesn’t measure public practice of the arts.) And even though its readers don’t “tune in” simultaneously, poetry is still more popular than the TV show 24.
None of this is to deny the general marginalization of poetry, nor to endorse a laissez faire attitude with respect to its promotion. I do think, however, that we too often confuse the public’s indifference to poetry with the condition of the art itself, readily presuming that a diminishing readership is indicative of something inherent in the medium (at least in its contemporary manifestation) that repels readers. But there is no clearer a correlation between the “health” of American poetry as an art form and the extent to which it is consumed than there is between the “health” of a scientific theory and the extent to which it is accepted by lay citizens. To describe the audience for poetry is merely to describe the market for poetry; and market trends are market trends, nothing more and nothing less.
Despite its apparent decline as an American pastime, poetry's constituency is active to an historically unprecedented degree. There are more venues for the dissemination of poetry than ever before--more print and online journals, more individual volumes, more public readings, more anthologies. And while "more" is by no means "better," contemporary American poetry, with its ever more varied "schools" and associations, is easily the most heterogenous national poetry that history has ever known (all the more so when we include the vast and ever-deepening pool of modern-day translation). I'm pleased to say that, readership aside, no future anthropologist will deny that poetry in America at the turn of the 21st century was very much alive.