Poet Laureate's blog: March 2019

The Rhymes They Are A Changing

In its most recent survey, the NEA foundsteep 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. So if this who is reading poetry, what are they reading?

These days, poetry is far more than words printed on a page, bound into volumes and sold in the poetry section of bookstores or tucked away in obscure corners of libraries.  A major reason for poetry’s growing popularity is that its definition has expanded.

One writer classifies poetry today as “broader, more viral and musical and culturally expansive, and therefore much harder to define and also harder to imagine going extinct.” If you look at Rupi Kaur’s books (milk and honey andThe Sun and Her Flowers), you’ll notice that she has combined words and images both on the printed page and on line, leading to her moniker as an “Instapoet.” Folksinger/songwriter Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literaturefor his “poetry.”In her short story,” English author Zadie Smith makes an oblique reference to Kanye West, saying, “He is one of the newer poets–the musical kind–and so his words tend to go everywhere, floating between our towers, rising above the city.”

And it’s not just how poetry is being written, but how’s its being accessed. Rather than settling into armchairs in stuffy clubs to read the classics with cups of tea, poetry fans today are accessing poetry via a range of social media. I subscribe to two daily poem feeds, one from the Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazineand Poem a Day from the Academy of American Poets (www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem-day) Indolent Books (https://www.facebook.com/indolentbooks/), a publisher of poetry books and online projects has published a few of my poems and I receive regular updates on new submissions.

Various online literary magazines also appear on my email and Facebook feed and friends send me poems, often via social media (now that Facebook “knows” that poetry is one of my interests, all kinds of poems pop up on a regular basis–thanks, algorithm!) In addition, I get what I think of as poetry “bites” on my Instagram feed (to get started, here’s a link to 12 Instagram poets worth looking into: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/12-instagram-poets-to-follow_b_58fbc278e4b0f02c3870eb05. Even Twitter has gotten in on the act; @BestCdnPoetry (https://twitter.com/bestcdnpoetry?lang=en) will take you to a comprehensive list of the Best Canadian Poetry of 2018. Truly an abundance of riches!

Because poetry is meant to be experienced, not just read, there are now ample opportunities to engage other senses as well. Button Poetry (https://www.youtube.com/user/ButtonPoetry) broadcasts poets reading/speaking/performing their poems on YouTube. Live poetry readings/slams/spoken word events are all the rage in settings as varied as classrooms to bars (look for our upcoming Pints & Poems event next month). And poetry is not only being spoken, it’s being talked about. Last year PBS aired a series called Poetry in America on its stations and online. The show features wide-ranging and rich conversations about poetry with various celebrities in a format that expands the notion of poetry by marrying words and images to bring the genre to life in a new way.

The who, the what but what about the why? One of the reasons poetry matters again lies in its intrinsic nature–language compressed and intensified. Poetry has the ability to convey and comment on the sense of urgency many people report feeling in these turbulent times. All over the world, people are thinking and talking and debating about who we are and want we want to become (or return to). In an age when words are used as weapons, we seek clarity, comfort and hope in whatever words of wisdom we can find. When you pair this yearning for meaning with the availability of instant communication, it’s clear why poetry has been liberated from the halls of academia and the slick world of traditional publishing. Poets today live in and embrace what one reviewer terms “the fast-paced, democratizing, hyper-connected culture of the internet.” No longer the purview of the educated and affluent few, poetry is now available to all.

This may explain why so many of today’s poets as well as consumers of poetry are people marginalized by mainstream society: youth, women, immigrants and refugees, indigenous peoples/people of colour. When times are tough, they’re even tougher on those who are most at risk, and a result most likely to be involved in social protest and online activism. As poet Jane Hirschfield told the New York Times last year: "When poetry is a backwater, it means times are OK. When times are dire, that's exactly when poetry is needed."

The rules have changed, as our response to poetry no longer bound by academic dissection, as if we are meant “tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it…beating it with a hose to find out what it really means” as poet Billy Collins says in “Introduction to Poetry.” At the same time, poetry invites us to slow down, to look/listen/think/feel–a refreshing break from the demands of the instantaneous "Like” response we’ve gotten used to on social media.

At their best, poems prompt as many questions as answers, generating uncertainty and mixed feelings. When we wish for easy answers to complex realties, poetry reminds us that its value lies as much in what it does to us as what we “do” to it. Next month is National Poetry Month. Let’s take the opportunity to celebrate nuance and ambiguity–the stuff of human existence–and set aside the blunt instrument of a black & white/either-or/right v. wrong mindset. For this ubiquitous contemporary ailment, poetry may be the best remedy.

Take a look at Poetry Corner for a short poem that tackles a challenging subject with candor and courage.