In April 2015, The Washington Post published an article that combined insult, injury, and statistics with a ruthless efficiency. Headlined “Poetry Is Going Extinct, Government Data Show,” the piece—published (insult! injury!) at the height of National Poetry Month—was based on the most recent results of the survey that the National Endowment for the Arts conducts every five years as part of the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey: an attempt to understand, through numbers, Americans’ relationship to the art form that represents, as Wallace Stevens once put it, “the renovation of experience.”
The survey’s top-line tidings, if you care about poetry as an art form, were as dire as the plummet-lined graphics the Post created to accompany the story. The survey, citing data gathered in 2012: “Since 2002, the share of poetry-readers has contracted by 45 percent—resulting in the steepest decline in participation in any literary genre.” The Post, summing it up: “Over the past 20 years, the downward trend is nearly perfectly linear—and doesn’t show signs of abating.”
But then … in the intervening years, something striking happened. In its most recent survey, conducted in 2017 and published in 2018, the NEA found that, contrary to the sharp decline it had observed in previous surveys, poetry—reports of its death, etc.—had in fact seen a massive rise in popularity. The number of self-reported poetry readers in the United States nearly doubled from 2012 to 2017, that survey found. And while growth in poetry reading was present across all the demographics the NEA surveyed, including urban and rural, it was young adults who demonstrated the largest and fastest increase, with the poetry-reading rate among those aged 18 to 24 more than doubling, from 8.2 percent in 2012 to 17.5 percent in 2017. And it was women and people of color, in particular, who helped to drive the expansion.