By Margaret Evans, Editor
April is National Poetry Month. But you already knew that, didn’t you, being the sophisticated readers that you are? What you might not know – I didn’t – is that the designation is less than 25 years old, having been assigned in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets, who hoped to increase public awareness of their art form.
Our own local society of bards – the Otram Slabess Poets – will hold two events this month, and while reading the charming article they sent me for publication, I remembered how much I love poetry and chided myself for not reading it more often. As a devoted English Major from way back, I felt shame burning my cheeks.
This got me wondering about the state of our poetic union. How many Americans were regularly engaging with poetry these days, anyway? Was I the only slacker out there?
A quick Google search brought up some intriguing results. As recently as 2015, a Washington Post headline made the dramatic claim that “Poetry is going extinct, government data show.” (Extinct? Yikes!) But by the summer of 2018, articles all over the Internet were echoing the NPR headline, “Poetry is Making a Big Comeback in the US, Survey Results Reveal.”
Hmmm . . . What could possibly have happened between 2015 and 2018 to account for this sudden turnaround? My mind had already “gone there” when I found a 2018 article in The Week that speculated, “poetry’s role in the resistance movements . . . may be boosting its audience.”
The article continued: “The Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, a collaboration between the NEA and the Census Bureau, found that 11.7 percent of the U.S. adult population in 2017 — or about 28 million people — had read poetry in the last year. Which admittedly may not seem like much on the surface — until it’s compared with the 6.7 percent found during the last survey period, in 2012. To find a comparable interest in poetry, you have to reach back to 2002, when the number of adults reading poetry narrowly cleared the 12 percent threshold.”
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what’s been going on here. Apparently, people started reading poetry again after 9/11. By 2012, their enthusiasm had waned considerably – in tandem with their feelings of grief, confusion and fear, one assumes. By 2017, poetry’s popularity was on the upswing again . . . thanks to the election of Donald Trump. Nobody’s saying that in so many words, but again, it’s not hard to connect the dots.
It just makes sense that people would be turning to poetry now. Historically, all the arts tend to flourish during times of political upheaval. Whether it’s poets inspired to pen words of protest or readers searching for solace and meaning, poetry – like all art – thrives in times of social and political chaos. It gives expression to our own inner chaos, maybe even order, and helps us feel less alone.
This is my theory, anyway. I kicked it around with my husband, and he thought I might be over-complicating the matter. (He always thinks I’m over-complicating the matter.) He threw out another theory that I actually like, mainly because it’s comforting – and because it doesn’t rule mine out. His idea? That our culture is, in some way, “self-corrective.”
“Maybe, when the news gets out in the world that ‘poetry is going extinct,’ the culture, on some deep, subterranean level, sets about fixing that problem,” he said. My husband is all about equilibrium. He believes the universe is always seeking balance. Again, I like this idea.
And it doesn’t cancel out my notion that when times are good – when people feel peaceful and secure and well cared for – they may be less inclined to seek the benefits of poetry.
But even when times are bad – according to the survey – only 12% of us are reading poetry. And not necessarily often – just ever. One wonders: If more of us were reading poetry, more often, how might the world change? Might “times” be better? There’s no way to know unless we up that number substantially, and this month is a good time to try! I doubt we’ll change the world, but we might change ourselves.
It seems to me that there are two especially good reasons to read poetry in the year 2019.
The first: To escape the mob. Most of us are fairly ensconced in social media now, where mob mentality reigns supreme. Social media encourages us all to pick a team and be good team players – to choose a political identity, then hunker down and defend it. It does not encourage independent thought, fresh ideas, collaboration between teams, or self-evaluation. Poetry, on the other hand, puts the reader in touch with a distinctive lone voice. It may sound like a paradox – and probably is – but I typically sense more universal truth, more timeless wisdom, in the distinctive lone voice of the poet than in the collective voice of the mob, who so often seem to be collaborating in motivated reasoning, sloganeering, and mutual blindness.
The second, semi-related reason to read poetry in 2019: To escape the demand for a simplistic response. When reading an article or comment on Facebook, we tend to signal our responses via emoji. We like or love, laugh or frown. Occasionally, we signal surprise or anger. Technology currently forbids that we use more than one of these symbols at a time – no mixed emotions! – and so far, Facebook hasn’t even seen fit to provide that most necessary emoji, the eye roll.
To recap – not only does social media force us into rigid, shallow modes of thinking and expressing ourselves; it also forces us into rigid, shallow modes of responding to others. Is it any wonder we have increasingly rigid, shallow views of each other?
Poetry, I think, is the anti-social media. Possibly even the antidote to social media. And while I’m not proposing we all leave Facebook, I am suggesting we all join some new Facebook groups: I just did a search and found pages called Poetry Slam, Poetry Lovers, and Poetry in Motion, just to name a few. Check them out and give them each a “like.”
Better yet, forget Facebook. Let’s go old school and drag out our Norton Anthologies. Call your mom. I’ll bet she still has yours in the attic.