Poetry Is (Not) Going Extinct

Regarding today’s article in the Washington Post, “Poetry is going extinct, government data show“:

If the study is representative, as Robert Peake points out on Twitter, that means over 21 million Americans still read poetry. That’s one third of the population of the UK, he adds — more, in fact, than all Americans alive when Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass.

And yet … taking them at face value, the facts  do show a steady (and obvious) decrease in the percentage of Americans who read poetry. Only listening to opera is less popular out of the 13 activities listed by the article. (Going to a movie, reading a novel, and going dancing topped the list, in that order.)

I’m weary of biological metaphors relating to an art (poetry is not alive — it can’t die or go extinct); and “going extinct” would mean that every single American poem will be wiped out from the face of the Earth and not one single person will ever again read one such.  And that’s certainly not been the case with the poetry of antiquity, even those written in “dead” languages. So long as one American poem survives (say the equivalent of he Odyssey one thousand years from now), the art will not have gone extinct. See the failure of the metaphor?

Yet there is a certain obviousness to the fact that few readers of novels read poetry, and even if there are more poets than ever writing more poems than ever in more poetry journals than ever, the general reading public seems weary or most likely unaware of the whole poetry subculture.

We may have to accept that poetry is not as central to American cultural life as it once was (though the good old days are always better in remembrance than in fact). And we may have to accept that fewer and fewer readers have the skills to fruitfully engage with modern and contemporary poetry (and that is a trend unlikely to reverse itself without significant educational reform). But that’s not the same as “going extinct.”

Will poetry ever be as popular as going to a movie or reading a novel? Almost certainly not (one may ask, has it ever?) But then, who really knows, considering the ethnic and cultural changes coming to America in the next century or two? 

At any rate, poetry is still a vibrant art, with millions (well, at least 21, per the Washington Post’s figures) of people who love to write and publish and, yes, read it. With that level of devotion, and with the quality of work being done by poets today, I am not afraid for the future of the art in America.

In fact, I am willing to bet that as long as a human language is spoken here, poetry will continue to be a part of the lives of a significant number of Americans.




  1. I would argue that the forced spareness of Twitter lends itself to the creation of poetry. You strip down your message to its essence, and you either get a telegram, or poetry. Depends on the writer, I suppose.

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