Saturday, August 4, 2012

Unconsumed poetry

There seem to be more people who write poetry than read poetry.

I have made this comment to friends, only half in jest. There really do seem to be more people writing poetry than reading it. Now I have some evidence to back it up.

Robert Hendrickson, author of The Literary Life and Other Curiosities, cites sources suggesting that somewhere between 2,000 and 3,400 Americans regularly buy books of verse. His book is somewhat dated. It was published in 1981 and updated in 1994, but the figures probably haven't changed much in the past few years.

Meanwhile, a group called Poets and Writers says about 5,000 people have published at least 10 poems in at least three literary magazines. The New Yorker received 3,000 poems each week at the time Hendrickson's book was published, yet printed only about 150 poems a year. The Atlantic Monthly got 20,000 poems a year, printing just 50 or so. These numbers probably haven't changed considerably either. Thus, even those who consider themselves poets are apparently not buying poems written by other poets.

Very few of us have ever written or tried to write a novel, but almost everyone who has ever imagined he or she possessed a smattering of writing talent has written a poem or two. Novels, even bad novels, can take months or even years to write. A poem, at least something of the "Roses are red" variety, can be knocked off in a matter of minutes. I've written a few poems myself. Admit it, you have, too.

Unless we are really serious about poetry, however, few of us want to actually read somebody else's poems. Even if we do read poetry occasionally, we probably favor long-dead poets like Wordsworth, Keats or Frost over any contemporary poets. How many contemporary poets can you even name? (No fair counting songwriters.)

The poet W.H. Auden once said, "Poetry is the only art people haven't yet learnt to consume like soup." A few decades later, poetry is hardly being consumed at all. Yet, in case anyone's interested, it is still being produced.

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