Poet Laureate's Blog: February 2019

February 2019: The Rising Popularity of Poetry–Who Knew?
The January blog outlined 5 emerging trends in poetry with the promise to explore each in more detail. This month, the focus is on the rising popularity of poetry, especially interesting as pronouncements that “poetry is dead” were being made as recently as 2015! Back in 1992, a major survey indicated that 17 percent of Americans had read a work of poetry at least once in the past year. Just 20 years later, that number had dropped to 6.7 percent. This decline was unique to poetry among the literary arts and represented the steepest decline of any literary genre. By 2015, the downward trend didn’t show any signs of abating.
In 2016, something happened: the number of print poetry books sold in Canada in 2016 grew almost 80% and then grew again in 2017. Last year, two of the Top 10 bestselling Canadian titles were Milk & Honey and The Sun and Her Flowers by Indo-Canadian poet Rupi Kaur and the final book of poems by Leonard Cohen became a best-seller when it was published posthumously in October. A similar renaissance is occurring in the UK and the US, meaning that poetry is now one of the fastest growing genres in the publishing industry worldwide.
What’s going on? Let’s look at the demographics for starters. Much of poetry’s growth is being driven by young readers, who experts say “hunger for nuance amid conflict and disaster.” In the aftermath of shocking world events, the words that spread are often not the words of politicians but those of poets. Susannah Herbert, director of the Forward Arts Foundation, which runs the Forward prizes for poetry and National Poetry Day says, “Almost everything a politician says is incredibly forgettable. There is a hunger out there for more nuanced and memorable forms of language.”
In a recent article in The Guardian entitled “Poetry sales soar as political millennials search for clarity” provides one explanation, Andre Breedt, of the polling firm Nielsen, confirmed that sales were booming. His theory is that in times of political upheaval and uncertainty, people turn to poems to make sense of the world: “Poetry is resonating with people who are looking for understanding. It is a really good way to explore complex, difficult emotions and uncertainty.”
Having grown up in the US in the 1960’s, I can relate to that. Sometimes it’s hard to find the words to express the fear, anger and resentment that bubbles up and boils over in tumultuous times. Just as we marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam war, teens and young millennials have become reengaged in political issues ranging from gun violence to climate change, and they want to be heard. Now as then poetry seems a particularly effective form to express strong sentiments. 
As Toronto poet Tara Farahani puts it, “Speeches are great, don’t get me wrong, but with poetry, every word is so intentional, every line you’re writing is intentionally building a story to make an impact.” David Silverberg, founder of the Toronto Poetry Slam, says that it’s not uncommon for poets who perform at the group’s twice-monthly events to draw on major world news for their poems, in part because of what he calls “the intimate, blunt nature of the medium.” 
Slam poetry and spoken word pieces are just a two of the formats by which poetry can now be accessed. The form’s brevity and availability of technology means poetry can also be consumed on phones and shared on social media. Rupi Kaur not only leads the bestsellers list with almost £1M of sales, she also has 3.4 million followers on Instagram. Her message is one echoed by many young poets: “You tell me to quiet down / cause my opinions make me less beautiful,” she writes in Milk and Honey, the #1 bestselling poetry collection of 2018, “but I was not made with a fire in my belly / so I could be put out.”
While almost 30% of poetry reader polled are between 18-35, poetry has re-emerged as a form to address important issues for poets of all ages. Our Poetry Corner this month features a local resident “of a certain age” who uses her poem “This Angry World” to speak out on an issue of import to all of us who inhabit “this great blue sphere we all call home.” I hope you enjoy it and will consider raising your voice–or pen–to speak out on any issue you believe needs attention and send it to us for consideration.