Inquiries into the death of poetry comprise a tradition almost as rich and varied as American poetry itself. Earlier this month, a college literary magazine proposed a tidy solution to the evergreen problem: "if you have to keep declaring, over and over, that poetry is dead, it can’t actually be dead."
Fair enough. Most of discussion around the question involves qualitative assessments that are inherently unsolvable. Is poetry too political, or not political enough? Is it too popular, or too elitist? Too pretentious or too profane?
I can't answer any of these questions. But there are a number of facts about poetry that are knowable, and given that April is National Poetry Month (which I bet you didn't know), now would be a good time to know them.
The first is that ever-elusive question of readership: does anyone read poetry anymore? 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.
Of course the arts aren't a zero-sum game, and they're not a popularity contest either. But in general the arts community gets uncomfortable when you talk about declining numbers. I asked Bonnie Nichols, a researcher with the National Endowment for the Arts, who co-authored the latest SPPA, what she made of the poetry readership rate. She was less interested in talking numbers, and more interested in the things arts organizations are doing to counteract them.
"The opportunity for us is to think about how we reach audiences," according to Nichols. "Newer media is playing a bigger role in poetry... 6.5 percent of Internet users use the internet to explore books, short stories and poetry," she said, a point she repeated several times during our conversation.
It's true that the internet has made poetry more accessible than ever. The Poetry Foundation provides thousands of poems on its website for free. But while there's plenty of poetry out there, it's less clear if new media efforts are having any impact -- or if many people are reading poetry on the internet at all.
Some numbers that speak to that point -- since 2004, the share of all Google searches involving "poetry" has fallen precipitously. Today, poetry searches account for only about one fifth of the total search volume they accounted for ten years ago.
And the cyclical ups and downs of the poetry search trend generally follow the contours of the academic year -- higher in the fall and spring, lower in the summer and over the holidays. This suggests that much of the online interest in poetry is driven by students looking for help with their coursework, rather than adults reading it for pleasure.
Defenders of poetry point out that there's still plenty of energy driving the art form. There are national contests like Poetry Out Loud, a kind of National Spelling Bee but for poetry recitation. Everywhere you turn, it seems, somebody's putting on a poetry slam. And the Poetry Foundation famously received a $200 million dollar gift from Ruth Lilly in 2002. In a field where a book with 4-digit sales can be considered a success, $200 million dollars can go a long way. But none of these efforts appear to have had any effect on poetry's declining readership numbers, which fall steadily with each passing year.
Assessing the state of contemporary poetry using survey data and Google Trends feels kind of like measuring the quality of a painting based on how large the canvas is. But just as you can't truly appreciate a work of art without viewing it in the flesh and on the wall, neither can you come to terms with the current state of poetry without understanding that for 20 years, the readers have been taking their attention elsewhere -- and not even the internet is making them come back.