The National Endowment for the Arts earlier this month announced part of the results of its 2017 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, reporting that nearly 12 percent of adults, or roughly 28 million people, read poetry in the past year.
These numbers, the highest on record in the survey's 15-year history, might seem meager in a world where the latest blockbuster is considered a disappointment despite amassing sales topping $100 million in its opening weekend. But in the poetry world, 28 million adult readers represents a significant uptick from the previous survey in 2012, which showed only 7 percent of the population reading poetry. That survey suggested a steady decline in readership and occasioned one of the many, many by-now-familiar headlines announcing (or contesting) poetry's slow demise. (My favorite was a 2012 bar graph in the Washington Post with the heading, "Poetry: Less Popular Than Jazz, Dance, and Knitting.") In this context, 12 percent participation in poetry, however modest, can feel to proponents of the form like a sign of its revitalization and cause for celebration.
What accounts for our moment's apparent rise in poetry readers? Amy Stolls, the NEA's literature director, notes that "social media has had an influence, as well as other robust outreach activities and efforts," such as Poetry Out Loud, the NEA Big Read, and various grants and fellowships that support poetry publishers and poets themselves. Even before the NEA's new survey results, other observers have speculated that poetry's role in the resistance movements that have proliferated in the past five years—most notably Black Lives Matter—may be boosting its audience.
As poet Jane Hirschfield told the New York Times last year: "When poetry is a backwater, it means times are OK. When times are dire, that's exactly when poetry is needed."
From this angle, it's no surprise that the NEA's data indicates that a 5 percent boost in readership has been driven mostly by increases among young adults, women, and racial and ethnic minorities—precisely those people most at risk under the current administration, and most likely to be involved in social protest and online activism.
How such factors are shaping poetry's audiences and, in turn, poetry itself is an important question. Ultimately, though, an overemphasis on how few or how many readers the form is attracting can flatten the relationship between poetry and its readers to a mere statistic, a number that could prove useful for fundraising efforts or hot takes about poetry's cultural relevance, but numbers have very little to tell us about what it feels like to read a poem, and why more and more people might be seeking that feeling. How big must poetry's audience be to justify our investment in the form? An over-fixation on counting the genre's readers threatens to obscure the experience of poetry itself.
At the University of Texas–Austin, where I teach courses in contemporary poetry, I've also sensed an increased curiosity about poetry in recent years, a palpable need among students for whatever poetry provides. Students from across the university—those studying to be engineers, programmers, social workers, and scientists, alongside English majors—sign up for my courses in poetry, eager for this renewed energy around poems.
One recent afternoon, I sat around a table in a narrow, nearly windowless classroom with 18 such students, bent over a copy of Evie Shockley's poem "statistical haiku (or, how do they discount us? let me count the ways)," from her celebrated 2011 volume the new black. In each stanza, Shockley juxtaposes a grim statistic about black life in America with an image, drawn from the natural world that seemingly translates that statistic into more traditionally poetic language. For example,
only 3 of 100 black boys
entering kindergarten will graduate college—
in the night sky, shooting stars
every day a black person
under 20 years old commits suicide—
plucked magnolia blossom's funereal perfume
My students asked: What is the relationship between statistics and poetry? Well, one said, as Shockley's title tells us, this is a poem about counting as discounting. Seeing people as mere numbers, the poem suggests, cheapens them; it reduces their personhood. But, another student wondered, who is the "they," referred to in the title, who discounts "us"? All around the seminar table, different alternatives were proposed. Are "they" the systemic forces that conspire to make black life the stuff of statistics? Are "they" the researchers themselves, whose striking statistics, typically intended to draw attention to such systemic oppression, nonetheless also risk flattening black life to a series of benchmarks? Or are "they" the poets, whose own rhythmic counting of experience might seem to offer an alternative to the enumeration of statistics, but historically has often had the effect of naturalizing forms of oppression such that they can seem inevitable?
Shockley's poem doesn't provide clear answers. For 75 minutes, my students explored the possible meanings and effects of each paired statistic and image. They debated the relation—both in general and in Shockley's poem—between statistics and poetry as ways of sorting and knowing the world. They meditated on the poem's structure, its eerie music, its allusions, its punctuation. They argued strongly for their feelings and interpretations of various lines and stanzas, only to find their understandings of the poem and its questions shifting as they listened to others' insights. If they came into class with a vague feeling that they knew quite a bit about the poem and the concerns it was engaging, they left feeling that they knew less than they'd thought, but also feeling more certain of the contours, and the value, of that uncertainty.
When my students read poems, they seem relieved that what the poem demands of them is not an instantaneous "like"—that their emotional responses aren't required to fit neatly within the Facebook-style reactions of laughter, sadness, awe, or anger. They understand that poems often nourish questions more than answers. Poems tend to foster uncertainty. Poems cultivate mixed feelings. And this is the kind of experience I believe poetry readers, however many of us there are, are after. It is an experience that, for those of us in especially precarious worlds, appears both increasingly rare and increasingly urgent.
As someone who teaches and writes about poetry for a living, and also writes poems myself, I also find reason to celebrate the news that more people are reading poetry. But poetry's number of readers shouldn’t be what counts. When we celebrate poetry for how many of us are reading it, rather than for what it provides those—however few—who need its vital resources, we accept precisely the blunt either/or logic that poetry, at its best, opposes.