In a world of 140-character bites of provocation and inner thoughts laid bare, does poetry stand a fighting chance? Fewer Americans are reading poetry than ever before — a 2013 government report based on nationwide surveys found that the number of people who read at least one work of poetry a year dropped 45 percent between 2002 and 2012. Writers like Michael Dirda, Andrew Solomon, and Jonathan Franzen have blamed electronic media, which isn’t going away any time soon, for the decline of literary culture. But in two March releases from Yale University Press, writers indicate that verse may be poised for a renaissance yet — and that digital platforms may even be to thank. In The Poetry of Pop, English professor Adam Bradley argues that popular music is the most widely disseminated yet overlooked contemporary poetic expression and lauds digital platforms like YouTube and Spotify for spreading rhythm and metaphor. Airea D. Matthews’ first book of poetry, Simulacra, meanwhile, demonstrates how traditional text-based poetry is evolving and adapting to modern molds: In her poems,Anne Sexton texts from the grave and Narcissus corresponds through tweets.
Bradley’s and Matthews’ works pose a challenge to the outdated way doomsayers define poetry. The decade-long survey that tracked Americans’ arts-engagement habits, for example, only accounted for poetry consumption through “literary reading,” yet also found that 71 percent of Americans consume art through electronic media. Are Americans less appreciative of art, or are we consuming it in novel ways — like on YouTube, where slam poems such as Neil Hilborn’s “OCD” and Darius Simpson and Scout Bostley’s “Lost Voices” rack up millions of views? Bradley’s and Matthews’ works remind us that poetry is found under many guises and that digital-media skeptics may have been looking for it in all the wrong places.
This story appears in the March/April 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.