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The State of Poetry: Loud and Live

This essay is excerpted from the introduction to The Best American Poetry 2018, edited by Dana Gioia, series editor David Lehman, to be published by Scribner in September.

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AMERICAN POETRY IS thriving. American poetry is in decline. The poetry audience has never been bigger. The audience has dropped to historic lows. The mass media ignores poetry. The media has rediscovered it. There have never been so many opportunities for poets. American poets find fewer options each year. The university provides a vibrant environment for poets. Academic culture has become stagnant and remote. Literary bohemias have been destroyed by gentrification and rising real estate prices. New bohemias have emerged across the nation. All of these contradictory statements are true, and all of them are false, depending on your point of view. The state of American poetry is a tale of two cities.

Consider the question of poetry’s current audience. In traditional terms, poetry’s audience has declined significantly in recent years. According to the massive Survey for Public Participation in the Arts conducted at five-year intervals by the National Endowment for the Arts, poetry readership dropped from 20 percent of the adult population in 1982 to only seven percent in 2012. Poetry’s slump matched a larger decline in all sorts of literary reading among every sector of the population. Poetry’s situation seemed dire.

Cultural trends, however, are rarely linear. When things change, they often change direction. There was one odd statistic in the 2012 NEA poetry data that was inconsistent with all the other measurements. The youngest group of adults (ages 18–24) read more poetry than any other segment. This result was puzzling because for years younger Americans read less of everything than older groups. No one much noticed the anomaly, even though American culture is often led by youth trends. Then in the next NEA report in 2017, national poetry readership nearly doubled to 12 percent with 28 million adult readers. After 30 years of declining readership, poetry was suddenly growing in popularity. What was going on?

It was a tale of poetry’s two overlapping cities — print versus performance. Culture is hard to measure in times of social and technological change. The NEA study measures conventional literary reading among American adults (print plus ebooks and text-based internet). It doesn’t track anyone under 18. The survey also doesn’t include poetry readings — live or in the media — as part of “literary reading.” Meanwhile a huge cultural shift has occurred outside the scope of the survey among youth involved in literary performance and digital media. Technology has allowed poetry, which had developed in preliterate societies as a spoken art, to reconnect with its auditory origins. Print now coexists with other equally powerful media for poetry.

The chief way American poets now reach their audience is through readings, either live or transmitted by radio, television, and internet. The new venues, such as YouTube, haven’t replaced print, but they have amplified it. The interest and excitement fostered by the new auditory culture has nurtured a new readership for print poetry. This trend has changed literary culture, especially for young or emerging writers with limited experience in traditional print media.

In a culture where elite journals such as The Yale Review or The Hopkins Review have circulation under a thousand copies, a teenager’s homemade YouTube video with 1,100 hits may reach more “readers.” Poetry performance is no longer confined to small, local events — a few poets reading in a half-empty cafe. Some slam poetry videos have clocked over a million views. Meanwhile in a more academic context, four million teenagers have participated in Poetry Out Loud, the national high school poetry recitation contest. Many of them film and post their performances. As the new NEA statistics suggest, the new and ubiquitous auditory media have helped increase poetry’s print readership. Instapoetry reaches millions of readers who would never open an issue of Poetry. Rupi Kaur’s two books have sold more than a million copies each. With better poetry and even higher sales, Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, dominates the “Fiction” best-seller list with multiple titles in the top 10 rankings.

Spoken word and performance poetry don’t replace written work. The new forms exist as alternative approaches to the same art — one focused on the page, the other on the stage. The different forms, however, influence one another. It is impossible to read new literary poetry without noticing how much more important sound has become.

Younger poets have grown up hearing the beat, rhyme, and wordplay of hip-hop. They read their poems aloud to live audiences. They have also felt the power of oral poetry’s self-presentation — a performer speaking directly to an audience. There is nothing surprising about the influence of the new forms of oral poetry. Spoken language constantly revitalizes the written word. Why else would Dante give up the prestige of Latin for the vulgar Italian tongue? Or Langston Hughes use the sounds of Harlem speech and sung blues?

If anyone doubts poetry’s new media presence, they should turn on the television. In recent years, poetry has become a code for sophistication. Sometimes entire poems are quoted. More often lines are quoted at critical junctures of the plot — sometimes with acknowledgment, sometimes without. Occasionally, a poem appears throughout an entire series as a thematic signal. Breaking Bad used Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” The Mentalist employed William Blake’s “The Tyger.” Poetry is now even used in commercials. Volvo adapted Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road.” Apple iPad presented Robin Williams crooning the Good Gray Bard’s “O Me! O Life!”

One might expect verse to appear in genteel hits such as The Crown, Endeavour, Downton Abbey, and Victoria. But poetry now works its way into such teen fare as The Magicians, Supernatural, Legion, Fringe, Being Human, Penny Dreadful, Mr. Robot, Scream, and The Simpsons. Poems are also frequently quoted on mainstream shows such as Bones, Elementary, Forever, Revenge, Longmire, House of Cards, Castle, Mad Men, Parks and Recreation, and 30 Rock. It happens so often that the Netflix viewer is no longer surprised to hear Sheriff Longmire read John Donne in his Wyoming office or correct the scansion of a murderer’s doggerel.

Poets now also regularly appear as film and TV characters. This trend goes beyond literary biopics about Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Pablo Neruda, and William Shakespeare. In the Netflix sci-fi series Altered Carbon, an Edgar Allan Poe replicant is the hero’s sidekick. In The Tudors, Sir Thomas Wyatt and Earl of Surrey play major roles. Shakespeare pops up all over, most notably in his own flashy TNT series, Will, where not only Christopher Marlowe and Robert Southwell but even the obscure Robert Greene play significant parts.

There are many factors behind this trend, but at least two things seem obvious. First, the film community finds poetry creatively potent — as a cultural reference, sign of sophistication, or proof of artistic seriousness. Second, media’s mass audience hears bits of poetry on a regular basis, whether they remember them or not. If poetry’s place in American culture is essentially paradoxical, one should savor the irony that poetry’s rapid emergence as an element in TV scripts occurred at the same time that print media was cutting back on poetry reviews and the education system was shrinking poetry’s place in its utilitarian “language arts” curriculum. As elite culture has less use for poetry, popular culture has embraced it.

American poetry is currently full of such contradictory trends. That’s one reason why the articles announcing poetry’s demise are usually right and wrong at the same time. The grim facts they report may well be apocalyptic, but what they measure isn’t what currently matters. So often commentators miss the big new thing happening next door. No one in an Ivy League English department would have predicted the current vogue of teen poetry and pop verse novels just as no one predicted the creation of hip-hop poetry or the renewal of rhyme and meter 40 years ago. The trends did not originate in the English department. How could Kool Herc change world poetry without an MFA?

The university’s role in poetry may be the most complicated paradox of all. For decades, the expansion of academic writing programs provided a home for poets, first as students and later as instructors. Academia gave thousands of poets secure, paid employment — something unprecedented in the history of Western literature. It was the United States’s version of the imperial Mandarin system, which once employed poets as bureaucrats across China’s vast empire. Our system was even better. Poets got summers off.

Then, like most booms, the surge ended. The university system stopped expanding, especially in the humanities. Job applicants greatly outnumbered job openings. Rather than address the problem by cutting back graduate programs, universities chose to exploit their junior personnel as cost-savings. Tenure-track careers became adjunct gigs with low pay, no benefits, and minimal job security. The academic situation is old news, but it is still awful to young and often not-so-young people trapped in crappy jobs or unemployment. The tale of this city depends on what side of the tenure track a poet lives.

Academia’s problems, however, had an unexpected cultural benefit. The legions of young writers, artists, musicians, and scholars who met with disappointment in the academic job market haven’t all vanished. Most of them just moved. Not finding a place in one world, the academic refugees sought new lives in another. As old bohemian neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan, San Francisco, and other cities were being destroyed by gentrification, tourism, and rising real estate prices, a steady stream of unemployed and underemployed artists helped enlarge or create new communities in places such as Oakland, Austin, Portland, Jersey City, Astoria, and downtown Los Angeles. Here they joined and revitalized preexisting local communities. Bohemian communities have also emerged in smaller towns, but in such cases their size makes them vulnerable to tourism and development. Witness the stultifying impact of money on Aspen and Carmel or, on a larger scale, the French Quarter of New Orleans.

Thirty years ago, the typical young poet taught in a university. Today’s new generation is more likely to be living in a big city and employed outside academia. They work as baristas, brewers, and bookstore clerks; they also work in business, medicine, and the law. Technology has made it possible to publish books without institutional or commercial support. Social media connects people more effectively than any faculty lounge. An online journal requires nothing but time. An iPhone and a laptop can produce a professional poetry video. Any bookstore, library, cafe, or gallery can host a poetry reading.

New circumstances create interesting possibilities for poets. In the new bohemia, a poet doesn’t need to worry about tenure, peer review, or academic fashions. A poet doesn’t even need a degree. Audience is not an abstract entity; the poet sees a diverse crowd face to face at readings. Those faces are not the same ones found at a research university. The new communities include large parts of the population unlikely to participate in academic literary life because they are blocked by poverty, language, and race. Those groups have brought new perspectives and new energy to literary life. Minority authors and audiences often share a conviction that literature and literacy are fundamental to the identity, advancement, and even survival of their communities. When creating your own literature becomes a life-or-death issue, different sorts of poetry emerge from what one commonly finds in an English department.

The new bohemia is no demi-Eden. Writers struggle to balance their art with practical exigencies. Their situation is complicated but exciting. Existing outside both the academic and market economy makes these poets marginal in society, but their circumstances also give them freedom from commercial and academic conventions. Most boho writers, with or without degrees, probably still dream of snagging a professorship, but they also recognize that as outsider artists they represent an important cultural enterprise. Together they have created a vigorous alternative culture that has broken the university’s monopoly on poetry. They have diversified, democratized, and localized American poetry.

The situation of poetry is impossible to describe but easy to summarize. No one fully understands what is happening because poetry and its audience are changing too quickly in too many places. There is considerable continuity with the past. The traditional ways in which poetry has been written, read, and evaluated still have relevance, but those methods don’t always seem very useful in understanding new developments. Old theories (including postmodern ones) are incommensurate with the present realities. There is no emerging mainstream replacing a dying old order. There is no mainstream at all — only more alternatives. The best metaphor is not death but birth. The poetry scene isn’t a cemetery; it’s a crowded, noisy maternity ward.

So don’t panic. Poetry is not in danger, at least no more than usual. New forms of poetry don’t eliminate established forms, though they do influence and modify them. Culture is not binary but dialectical. A new generation of poets and readers drawn from every segment of society is expanding the art to meet new needs and seize new opportunities. Poetry now has as many categories as popular music. What plays at Harvard won’t get anyone on the dance floor in East Los Angeles, and that’s just fine. All styles are possible, all approaches open, and everyone is invited.

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Featured Image: Alexis Rangell-Onwuegbuzia of Orange County, 2018 Poetry Out Loud state champion. Photo by Tia Gemmell, courtesy of the California Arts Council.

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Dana Gioia is an award-winning poet. Former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia is a native Californian of Italian and Mexican descent. In 2015 Gioia was appointed the State Poet Laureate of California by Governor Jerry Brown.

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