Poet Laureate's Blog: January 2019

Poetry in 2019the Trend Line is Good

Happy New Year! Each January, there are articles everywhere you look about starting the new year off “right.” Whether it’s “5 Easy Resolutions for Your Career” or “131 BEST New Year’s Resolutions” (yikes!), there’s no end to the advice available. Good news: this month’s blog is not one of them! When it comes to poetry, my only “advice” is “try it–you might like it!

That being said, I do have some thoughts to share with you on what’s happening in poetry in 2019. Here are 5 trends related to poetry you might find of interest. Over the next months, we explore each in more detail.

Here’s the big picture:

1. The popularity of poetry continues to rise

28 million people read poetry in 2017 The number of print poetry books sold in Canada in 2016 grew 79% over the previous year–the largest jump of any category–and grew again in 2017. In 2018, two of the Top 10 bestselling Canadian titles of theyears were books of poetry: Milk & Honey and The Sun and Her Flowers, both by 20-somethng Indo-Canadian poet Rupi KaurAt the other end of the spectrum, The Flame, the final book of poems assembled by octogenarian Leonard Cohen, was an instant hit when it was published posthumously in October.
This is by no means just a Canadian phenomenon. In the UK, poetry sales went up by 15% in 2017 and in the US, a 21% growth in poetry sales occurred between 2015 and 2017, making poetry one of the fastest growing genres in the publishing industry. And people aren’t just buying poetry, they’re reading it: last year almost 12% of North Americans polled reported reading poetry–pretty amazing when a quarter of of them indicated not having read a whole book in any format in the past 12 months!

2. The audience for poetry is changing

Of those polled who read poetry, almost 30% were between the age of 18-35. Saul Williams, a famous slam poet (more about this later!) noted the cyclical nature of poetry’s popularity, “It’s always engaged a new generation of youth who have brought it back to the forefront of culture and put new terms on it.”

The survey showed steep increases in poetry readership across the board, but especially among women, minorities and adults with only some college education. Poetry has also gotten a major boost among rural audiences: almost twice as many people from non-metro areas read poetry in 2017 than in 2012.

3. The definition of what makes a poem continues to expand

An attendee at a local poetry event last year told me, “When I was in school, the teacher said that all we needed to know about poetry was “Ta-da, ta-da, ta da-da; Ta da, ta da, ta da;  ta da, ta da, ta da-da; ta da, ta da, ta da.” Wow-have things changed in the poetry world! Today, we’re approaching close to 100 recognized genres of poetry. Some of these forms have been “discovered” by Western writers in other cultures, like the Sijo (a Korean verse form related to Haiku but with more syllables) and the Ghazal (an Arabic verse form traditionally focused on love).

Conceptual poetry uses the placement of words and characters on the page so that the poem’s meaning is derived as much from its shape as its content. A genre that ‘s making a comeback is Prose Poetry, a composition often written in a “block” of text v. broken into verse lines (an early example is Hamlet’s soliloquy by Shakespeare). Leaping off the page is the genre of Spoken Word, a broad designation for poetry intended for performance v. reading (see an example at left from local writer Linda Hurley).

A related form is Slam Poetry, a live performance in which the poet expresses personal story/struggle in an intense and emotional style and is judged by a random panel on the performance. Yup, that’s a thing!

4.  The focus of poetry is changing

Not only is the “what” and “how” of poetry changing–increasingly, so is the “why.” Addressing personal, social and political issues has always been a means of “speaking truth to power.” In these fractious times, poetry has stepped out of the libraries and off the pages to march, protest and call out injustice. From the the #metoo movement and the call for justice from indigenous communities to the demand for equality by the transgender people, poetry has emerged as a chosen form to address important issues.

While focused on different themes, many poets are turning their talents to speak to key social issues and empower the disenfranchised. Short verses are being used to further social change by appearing not in books or journals, but on social media to raise awareness, written on banners at protests, even as tattoos to literally “embody” an idea.

5. How we access poetry is changing

We think of poetry as something we seek to read, but increasingly, poems come to us. Poetry in the public eye–usually combined with visual imagery–is a growing phenomenon. From the large-scale “activation” entitled Something to Say currently on display in and around the Brooklyn Museum in New York (https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/something_to_say) to the interactive Write the Wavesinstallation we created on the hoarding at the end of North Pine Street right here in Collingwood, poetry is getting out and about.

And while sales of poetry books continue to rise, many of us are accessing poetry the same way we get the news, the weather and updates from fronds and family–on our devices. If the medium is truly the message, Instagram has provided another platform where form and content are conjoined. Short enough to take in without scrolling down, these short texts–often laid out on a coloured square pleasing to the eye–mesh well with our 21st-century reading habits.

If approached with an open mind, poetry can be delicious and satisfying. So I’ve got just one New Year’s resolution for you to consider: make a point to add poetry to your reading diet in 2019. If you’re not sure how to begin, here’s what the poet Eve Merriam advises in “How To Eat a Poem”:

Don't be polite.
Bite in.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that
        may run down your chin.
        It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.
You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth.
For there is no core
or stem
or rind
or pit
or seed
or skin
to throw away.

Poetry–good and good for you. Enjoy!