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Poetry enjoying resurgence in popularity in the US

Poets and teachers say these unsettling times may have sent readers back to verse; it may also be a respite from online 'likes'

Social media has been given a "supporting role" in the promotion of poetry. Poets can ride on it to tell their stories and take control of disseminating their work, since social media has democratised publishing.

POETRY is hot - a lot hotter than you might think. The share of adults in the United States reading poetry grew 76 per cent between 2012 and 2017, says a new study from the US National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

Some 28 million adults reported reading poetry last year. The results are more dramatic for young people. The percentage of poetry readers age 18-24 doubled during that period.

This happy news is contained in a study published on Sept 12 called US Trends in Arts Attendance and Literary Reading: 2002-2017, based on a partnership between the NEA and the US Census Bureau. It's the nation's largest and longest-running survey of how millions of adults participate in the arts.

Ironically, despite all the complaints about Facebook and Twitter leading to the death of Western civilisation, social media may be encouraging Americans' rising interest in poetry.

Sunil Iyengar, the director of the Office of Research & Analysis at the NEA, cites the rise of social media and technology platforms as one potential explanation for the increased interest in poetry and spoken word. Amy Stolls, the NEA's director of literature, also mentions social media along with the agency's outreach activities to publishers, writers and schools.

Some of the most popular poets alive are now "social media poets", writers who distribute their work and connect with their vast, young audiences primarily online. Canadian poet Rupi Kaur has three million followers on Instagram, where she regularly posts images and short verses. Her first print collection, Milk and Honey (2015), sold about two million copies, an unheard of blockbuster in a genre that usually considers a few thousand copies a success.

But poetry could also be a countervailing influence to social media. US Poet Laureate Tracy K Smith, who teaches at Princeton University, asked if the unsettled tenor of our times is drawing people, especially the young, back to verse.

"In my teaching of undergraduates, I see them turning to the art form in their bid to grapple with questions on forced migration, shifting gender norms, the environment, mental illness and technology - along with old standbys of love, loss and the changing seasons."

Far from celebrating the influence of technology, she suggests readers may be turning to poetry to get away from "likes": "Unlike any generation before them, these young people don't know a life before smartphones and social media," she said. "Poetry, which breaks from the shorthand vocabulary of tweets and sound bytes, offers them a necessary recourse to depth, strangeness, vulnerability and imaginative possibility. It also invites them to take their time, to move slowly, to process things gradually, which is an impulse counter to the breakneck pace at which so much else occurs."

Robert Casper, head of the Poetry and Literature Center in the Library of Congress, suggests a supporting role for social media - not so much as a platform for verse, but as a means of calling attention to its writers.

"Poetry's surge in popularity among young people has to do with the success of the spoken word and performance poetry," he said, "with a new generation of poets who are smartly promoting the art through social media."

Sarah Browning, co-founder of Split This Rock, a national poetry and social justice body based in Washington, DC, suggests greater diversity is driving the new popularity of verse.

"At long last, establishment American poetry is looking and sounding like America: people of colour, queer people, people with disabilities and activist poets are telling about their own lives and struggles and joys. And because of the Internet and changes in publishing, they're also taking control of the means of distribution."

Sadly, the share of adults who read any books not required for work or school remained about the same as in 2008. And, more alarmingly, the percentage of people who read novels or short stories "is now lower than in any prior survey period". WP

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