Pass much time in the company of poets—young or old, online or off—and soon enough you’ll find yourself privy to the cycles of consternation and dismay inspired by the general insignificance of poetry. Even as America counts more active poets than ever before, the art itself, or so the periodic feeling goes, has slipped beyond decadence into the hobbyish realm where civil wars are playacted for sport and chain mail is knit lovingly by hand. Already in the 1950s people were lamenting the approximation of poetry’s readership to the population producing the stuff, and today the coincidence of circles is complete. Indeed, it seems less a joke than fair plausibility that more people are writing a poem on any given day than reading one.
Of course there will always be some people eager to disprove this thesis. They will point you to the manic proliferation of MFA programs and new poetry publications and wonder how anyone in his right mind could worry. But let’s be real. The expediencies of university administration and the economics of bookbinding do not add up to the health of an art.
Besides, what looks like an ocean from inside is barely a raindrop to the world at large. Poetry lost the common reader a long time ago, if it ever had her, and from where I sit, it seems well on its way to losing the uncommon reader as well. Forget the mythical amateur—relaxing into his fireside wingback at the end of a long day of mezzanine finance or political consultancy—trading in Stevens for Steig Larsson and Snooki. Now it’s the word-workers we’re losing: the novelists, the journalists, the editors, even the graduate students of English. Time was you had to know at least a little Larkin or Lowell or Creeley to count yourself a cultured intellectual, just as older times demanded you had to keep current with opera and ballet. No more. These days we feel like we’re shouldering our share of the civilizational burden if we keep up our subscription to the New York Times and pledge yearly to NPR.