Wednesday, May 15, 2019

What kind of poetry is most popular?

Poets and those of us who perform the roles of poetry ambassadors sometimes feel obligated to mention that everyone's reading poetry these days. "Poetry Is More Popular Than Ever, According To A New Report From The National Arts Endowment," read the headline of an article last year. We've seen similar pieces, highlighting the interest in poetry.

In addition, poets regularly mention the public's fondness for verse. "I read some statistics recently that more people are reading poetry in America now than in many, many years," said Natasha Trethewey in a recent interview.

What's not mentioned as much in the coverage on poetry is that many other things -- movies, sports, comic books, veganism, etc. -- are more popular today than ever before as well. There's also some silence about the different kinds of poetry that are most popular. Is it rhymed or free verse poetry? Award-winning poetry? Spoken word poetry? Instagram poetry? Rap?

Many people are now willing to concede that rap is poetry. But, we also notice important differences. When I label my courses "poetry," students are far less interested in those than they are in my "rap" courses. By and large, the young black women in my literature classes prefer spoken word poetry, accessed via YouTube, over the ostensible print-based poets we cover. 

But in the surveys I've conducted with the students, they prefer other modes of writing (Instagram captions, Twitter memes, short stories, novels, essays, news articles on select topics) over poetry. That's not to say they dislike poetry or that they've not read it. They just tend to prefer those other modes, notwithstanding exceptions here and there, when given a choice.

I don't teach in an MFA program, so I'm not obligated to privilege poetry in my courses. I do so, though, because I enjoy thinking, talking, reading, and blogging about a variety of subjects and debates related to African American verse in particular. I wish there was a little more funding related to poetry programming, but as it stands, the more active financial investments with poetry go toward awards, fellowships, and retreats. The focus is on artists not readers.

The good news and the trouble with black poetry

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