Monday, April 17, 2006

Who Reads Poetry? + The Sinking of Kiribati

Who reads poetry?

This is a question I've pondered quite often, though mainly in terms of who outside the poetry-focused circles I spend a great deal of my time reads poetry. I've often felt I have a better sense of who writes and performs poetry than who reads it, particularly chapbooks, pamphlets, journals, anthologies and books of it.

Some other questions I've also posed to friends, fellow poets and not, my classes and myself include: Why do some people read and listen to poetry throughout their lifetimes? How do people in general perceive poetry, poets, and poetry readers? What prevents people without a strong interest in poetry from reading or listening to it? What steps might be taken to broaden the audience for poetry in the United States? The Poetry Foundation, based in Chicago, actually contracted with the highly regarded Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago to get some answers, some of which were mentioned in Dinitia Smith's article last week, "Arts Briefly: Who Reads Poetry?" (now a costly Times Select/archived article, unfortunately) and the full report, "Who Cares about Poetry? 90% of American Readers, New Study Shows," was posted on the Poetry Foundation's site a week later.

The researchers polled 1,023 self-identified readers. According to Smith:

Seventy-six percent of the total said they read poetry. Overall, the highest percentage of people who read poetry are educated white women. ''But if you look just at the percentage of African-Americans,'' said Norman Bradburn, a senior fellow at the center and a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, who supervised the study, ''as compared to the percentage of whites, a higher percentage of African-Americans--85 percent of those sampled --are likely to read poetry than of whites.''

She continued:

If you like poetry, according to the study, no matter what your race, there is a better chance that you're athletic, too, and enjoy the company of others. And there isn't necessarily a correlation between having a college degree and being a poetry reader. ''Fifty-six percent of poetry readers have less than a college degree,'' Mr. Bradburn noted.

The first point parallels though differs from the "Reading at Risk" findings that regular readers have higher levels of civic participation. Some other points, straight from the Poetry Foundation's site:

  • Most poetry readers (80 percent) first encounter poetry as children, at home or in school. 77 percent of all readers were read nursery rhymes as children; 45 percent of current poetry readers also had other forms of poetry read to them as children.
  • Poetry readers believe that poetry provides insights into the world around them, keeps the mind sharp, helps them understand themselves and others, and provides comfort and solace.
  • Readers turn to a variety of sources to find poetry: single-author books (77 percent), anthologies (58 percent), television (48 percent), radio (41 percent), the Internet (36 percent), poetry readings (29 percent), poetry magazines (20 percent), reviews/commentaries about poetry (19 percent), poetry slams (12 percent).
  • When people encounter poetry in unexpected places such as newspapers, general-interest magazines, and public events, even non-poetry readers read or listen to it: 99 percent of all adult readers indicated that they have incidentally encountered poetry, and 81 percent reported that they read or listened to the poem when they encountered it.
  • Approximately two-thirds of the respondents thought that both poets and poetry readers are people who are generally respected; 70 percent would like to meet poets, and 66 percent would like to meet poetry readers.
  • Among the most frequently cited reasons that people don't read poetry are lack of time, loss of interest, lack of access, and the perception that poetry is difficult and irrelevant.
  • While more than 80 percent of former poetry readers find poetry difficult to understand, only 2 percent of respondents don't read poetry because they feel it is "too hard."
The full report has even more interesting and enlightening information and presents a more positive portrait of the state of poetry in the US than even many poets might imagine. The question of poetry's miniscule publishing might, in sheer dollar terms, is an important question that isn't fully addressed, however.

I do wonder, however, about the small sample size, and the fact that it comprised only self-identified readers. What about people who don't consider themselves "readers" or read often, which is to say, the sorts of people who were included in the NEA's "Reading at Risk" study. Nevertheless, it's definitely great news for National Poetry Month.


Do you want to get a sense of what life in certain parts of the world may be like if the environmental degradation caused by global warming steadily worsens? Andrew Selverston's article on the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, which is south of Hawai'i, presents one chilling example.


Now that we know what we're doing to the earth and our climate, we proceed blindly at our own peril. Our current course is unsustainable. Kiribati, like New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Katrina, or the midwestern states hit by storms, or the Caribbean countries battered by increasing hurricanes, or the slowly disappearing coastline of Bangladesh, or the creeping desert in northern Africa, won't be the only or last places affected by our folly....


  1. As always, I turn to Frank O'Hara's comment about poetry "improving people,": improving people for what?

    I am wary of the claim that reading poetry says anything about one's body (more athletic?) or character. I'm also intrigued by the term "reader" as opposed to listener, especially given the explosion of spoken-word events.

    I wonder how the numbers would change and the perceptions of poetry if we included all the forms of spoken word events.

    Of course, I've been too lazy to read the actual report, which I will do. Thanks for posting it.

  2. Keguro, you're familiar with Maslow's hierarchy of needs? It's basically a psychological model (empirically based) which says that, until basic (in sucessive steps) physical, emotional, and intellectual needs are met, one does not partake of more rarefied pleasures/entertainment/endeavors.

    In other words, starving people do not "work out"; the uneducated do not avidly follow esoteric philosphical debates (because there is not the underlying educational development that would support such an interest). But the principle of Maslow's needs can show up in strange, seemingly unrelated correlations, as in the poetry=physical fitness connection. The sort of person whose basic needs have been sufficently met that poetry can be of interest and relevant tends to correlate with those who can (yes, "can" not "do") care about health/physical fitness.

    We had an skirmish a couple months ago about the (very real)improvements of poetry ... but today I'll forebear ...

    Kai in NYC

  3. Keguro, I would agree with Kai, and add that while both this report and the NEA report make assertions with a Schillerian thrust, I think it stands to reason that people who are intellectually engaged, no matter what their class level, might be active in other aspects of their lives. Not all, but many. That's the correlation I see, but I don't thing there's any sort of direct causal link or correlation. Also, if I recall correctly, O'Hara's comments, like his poetry, are often ironic, and what makes me think in particular of another way of reading his "improvement" comment is a passage in John Ashbery's "Writers and Issues: Frank O'Hara's Question." It's included in the recently published collection of his essays (Michigan, 2006), which I recommend. Here is one of its most famous quotes, which itself is quite ironic:

    "Frank O'Hara's poetry has no program and therefore cannot be joined. It does not advocate sex and dope as a panacea for the ills of modern society; it does not speak out against the war in Vietnam or in favor of civil rights; it does not paint gothic vignettes of the post-Atomic age: in a word, it does not attack the establishment. It merely ignores its right to exist, and is thus a source of annoyance for partisans of every stripe."

    (Of course despite his personal limitations and background, O'Hara was against the war, was socially progressive, in terms of his relationships with Black people, women and other gays, and also actively participated in the various forms of liberatory activity that existed during his adult life--all of this is in his poetry as well.) He continues: "...Unlike the 'message' of committed poetry it incites one to all the programs of commitment a well as to every other form of self-realization--interpersonal, Dionysian, occult, or abstract." Ashbery's channeling Pater (and Nietzsche and Heidegger, etc.) here, but I think he has a point: O'Hara's poetry, which is often about action in relation to thought, does provide one model for literary or linguistically mediated disidentification, to use José Muñoz's theoretic concept, and I for one am grateful to him for the examples he provides.