Does Anyone Read Poetry Anymore?

Back when my book group could still meet in person we had a fun month where everyone chose a piece of poetry to share. We had funny poems, romantic poems, some pithy pun filled poems, and then there was me dredging up the angst with Sylvia Plath:)

I’m sure it will come as no surprise to anyone that I was a definite poetry nerd as a teenager. I was into all the angst, all the pain, and definitely all the darkness associated with poets like Plath, Dickinson, Lowell, and Eliot. I still have shelves of poetry books, including an inordinately morbid number of First World War poets, as well as a surprising number of romantics! I have to confess though in recent years I’ve bought very few new volumes of any kind of poetry and, apart from this particular book group project, have rarely taken down a book of poetry to peruse for fun. So what happened? (you know apart from life, motherhood, etc…) Why had poetry dropped off my reading list so precipitously?

A few years ago I remember hearing the poet Jane Hirschfield being interviewed on Fresh Air and being mesmerized by her poetry reading (I had to pull the car over so I could listen to the whole broadcast). More recently I was inspired by Amanda Gorman’s amazing poem at the inauguration and I do hope this elevation of poetry and performance will reignite popular interest (not that I think publishers ever viewed poetry as a great money maker!). For me, though, the desire to reconnect with poetry came a few months ago (pretty much after my book group project which made me realize what I’ve been missing). Since then I’ve been trying to start off my writing day with reading at least one poem. It’s been, at best, a sporadic success, but I am so glad that I’m finding the time to reincorporate poetry back into my life…but still I have to wonder, does anyone actually read poetry anymore??

What about you TKZers? Are you a poetry fan or was poetry just something cruel English Literature teachers forced you to study? Do you, as writers, ever use poetry as a creative or inspirational tool? What do you think are the chances that poetry is now back in vogue (if it ever was!)?


46 thoughts on “Does Anyone Read Poetry Anymore?

  1. I first made my writing bones as a poet. My Lessons for a Barren Population was the first-ever book length collection of poetry published as an electronic book (Hardshell Word Factory, 1999).

    In that year, the same book placed at the Frankfurt Book Fair in the Fiction category (because they didn’t have a Poetry category). And there are other collections, some nominated for major prizes.

    So I certainly hope people read poetry and that, as an extension, poetry collections sell. But I can attest that they do not. Much.

  2. Clare, for me, your post is quite timely. I never really stopped reading poetry — I’ve been reading Charles Bukowski’s work for five decades, and publishers seem to keep unearthing enough of his unpublished verse to keep the volumes coming — but lately I have unearthed my collections of Leonard Cohen’s poetry and Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish. In both of those cases, I was inspired to do so by music. I started listening to Cohen’s body of albums — old to new, which are full of songs that at their core are poetry set to music. I came back to Ginsberg sideways. The Handsome Family, best known for the haunting theme song of True Detective Season 1, recently recorded a backing musical track for one of Ginsberg’s spoken word performances.

    To answer your questions: 1 Yes, I am a poetry fan in small doses, in spite of the cruel English teachers (although Bill Stoner, my college freshman English professor, broadened my horizons immeasurably). 2) I absolutely do use poetry (song lyrics) as an inspiration tool to the extent that I have recently started at this late date writing some songs. 3) I don’t imagine that we’ll see folks carrying around volumes of poetry like we saw in the 1950s and 1960s but you never know.

    Thanks for a great post for this snowy morning, Clare!

  3. In 7th grade, we had to memorize poems. I was good at it, although for me it was just words. I was glad I didn’t have Miss Barrett, whose students had to memorize and recite the entire “Paul Revere’s Ride,” while Miss Cook gave us only a small portion–but we made up for that with a whole bunch of other poems to learn.
    In high school, I remember Haiku (I still have a book of ‘classics’ on the nightstand in the guest room.) We looked at other poems, line by line, word by word. I don’t remember a single one of them.
    In college, poetry for me was Bob Dylan.
    My parents had a book of limericks, the title declaring them “erotic or otherwise. None of them otherwise.” They kept it on a very high shelf.
    My first in-person critique group had 2 members who wrote poetry. I was pretty much useless at offering advice, although I think I pointed out a place where a comma would help.
    So, I guess the sort answer is, no, I no longer read poetry, although I’ve used song lyrics for the inspiration for one of my protagonist’s internal conflict.

      • I believe ours was by Gershon Legman. I wonder if it survived the move when we left Florida. You have me curious enough to go downstairs and check.

    • In high school Ms. Rosenblum, my Russian teacher made us memorize Russian poetry, Pushkin and Lermontov. She felt it might come in handy when we met the Red Army on the fields of Europe. She had lived through the first two world wars.

  4. Poetry was never my thing, except in song. Like the so-called ‘classics’ of literature I was forced to read, I was likewise forced to read ‘classic’ poetry in school & developed a great distaste for it.

    I love older country music, and some of the best songs are ballads put to music. I think of Lorne Greene’s classic rendition of “Ringo” or Marty Robbins songs, etc.

    I do occasionally write poetry, either as a form of prayer or to work through something. And there are a couple of poems I’d like to write that I hope will not be cringe-worthy as most of my poetry is, because I’d like to honor a couple of loved ones in my life by writing a great poem about them one day.

    So while I don’t read poetry, I write it on a somewhat regular basis, but it is intended to be merely personal. Perhaps that’s why I don’t enjoy reading poetry–maybe inherently it is a highly personal journey, and you appreciate it most when it’s your own journey. For whatever reasons, while fiction writers can cross the realm and bring me into their story, it just doesn’t work for me with poetry–or at least very rarely.

    But thankfully we all have a great variety of reading options to choose from, so we can each find what touches and moves us.

    • Such an interesting point about the highly personal nature of poetry – I’m betting quite a few writers use their own personal poetry as a means of expression but perhaps, like you, they don’t read ‘classic’ poetry as much because of that.

  5. Amanda Gorman is amazing! She reignites my passion for poetry. What an inspiration! I do peruse Poe from time to time, but not nearly as much as I should.

    Wishing you an amazing week, Clare!

  6. Yes, I read poetry! I just finished a noir horror novel called Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow. The entire thing is written in verse. I smiled when you said you liked Dickenson. Her poetry was one of the few things that calmed my daughter down when she was an infant and getting fussy. I guess Dickenson’s strong rhythm caught her attention. (But so did Gregorian chants and Prince’s music, go figure.)

    • Priscilla – I’ll have to check out Sharp Teeth – a horror noir all in verse sounds intriguing. I love your use of poetry to settle a fussy infant! For my boys it was Celtic music – as you say, go figure!

  7. Do I read poetry? No.

    Do I listen to poetry? Yes, every time favorite music plays.

    Can I recite poetry from memory? Yup. Most Motown, Domino, Simon, Tyson, Kristofferson, Nelson, Wonder, Franklin, Parton, Springsteen…better stop–I could go on all day.

  8. I find much of modern poetry to be pretentious and indulgent. I find much of “classical” poetry to be impenetrable. If I have to work hard to figure out what I’m reading, I lose concentration and the whole process becomes burdensome. “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”, anyone? Puh-lease.

    That said, I love poetry that tells a story. “The Highwayman” and “Paul Revere’s Ride” (is that the title?) come to mind in the classical realm. And my buddy Edgar Allan. In music, while my taste in musical styles leans more toward classical (Beethoven and later, for the most part), I love country music because of the stories they tell. Ditto Harry Chapin, John Denver, Judy Collins, Jim Croce and Bob Dylan (as long as he’s not singing–his voice is like cat claws on a blackboard).

    • John – I think a lot of people would agree on the impenetrable classics:) My taste has always run to the melodramatic so maybe that’s why poetry often appeals to me! I’m not a huge country fan except for Johnny Cash. Like my poetry my song preferences run to the depressed English variety (The Smiths anyone?!))

      • Johnny Cash is awesome. So many wonderful songs but two of my favorites are “One Piece at a Time” and “The Chatanooga City Limit Sign”.

    • We must be about the same age. I am closing in on 60. EVERYBODY had a copy of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”. I think I read it through twice. Didn’t get it then and still don’t. I do remember by the mid 1980’s you could pick it up by the dozen at used book stores.

    • Possibly the most pretentious thing in the world is some poet telling others his work has to be “interpreted.” Robert Frost was of the other stripe. When hounded by a student about what he meant when he wrote that a “red hind bounded into the woods,” he wheeled on her. “Young lady, do you not understand the language? Should I have written it in more and less-precise words?” (grin) When I was teaching, I told students they could only begin a poem; the reader finishes it.

  9. Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem really hit home with me. I read Poe’s poetry in high school, Chinese poetry (in translation) in college, and some bits here and there, but never on a regular basis. I’d like to read more. As John Gilstrap wrote above, poetry that tells a story draws me, as does poetry that evokes real emotion. Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” did both.

    Thanks for inspiring me to look into reading poetry again.

  10. I read “Where the Sidewalk Ends” with my young children and we all laughed. You have to have a sense of humor–a weird sense of humor but a sense of humor—to enjoy the poems. The illustrations helped. They were hilarious. When I was young an aunt and uncle gifted me with a large book of Stevenson’s poems, “A Child’s Garden of Verses”. The illustrations were beautiful. Later if was gifted with a record of poems by Longfellow, and a book of poems by Rudyard Kipling. I inherited “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman. —- Suzanne

    • Spike Milligan’s poems are also silly and weird and I my boys loved them (though I suspect I loved them more::). I have fond memories too of beautifully illustrated books of children’s poems. For adults, William Blake’s illustrations for his poems are amazing.

  11. The topic you chose to write on today came in at a time when it’s most valuable to me, Clare.

    I started reading and writing poetry in the early 20s. I went to stay a while in the country with my parents then and helped them with farm work. What drew me to poetry is its simplicity, the fact that you could write without much thoughts about structure, plotting and characterization. You could say I was a lazy writer then.

    Then, I longed to write something that would be called poetry but not the kind of poetry everyone knows. Luckily for me, I got an idea in 2013 and started writing a poetry series I tag ‘Introspection’. It’s a collection of interwoven stories written in verse: same number of lines and same number of stanzas, but in free verse, unlike Shakespearean Sonnets. Therein, I addressed a number of social issues in Nigeria and the world. I finished a hundred of the first collection in 2019 and started the second collection same year.

    I’m currently working on publishing the first collection of Introspection on Amazon in April, 2021.

    Even if not many, I believe people are still interested in poetry and that there’s still market for it, if you know how to go for the right audience. I’m still learning to locate where the right audience is, though.

    • Stephen
      Your introspection collections sound beautiful. You’ve inspired me and I definitely hope these sorts of works draw in a wide audience. I too believe poetry has the potential to appeal – maybe after Amanda Gorman’s poem at the inauguration more people will be open to exploring poetry.

  12. I was big poet on campus at a large liberal arts college. A pretty good trick for a human hobbit. Lots of awards and a scholarship. 2+ degrees in literature so a sh*t ton of poetry read. One of my writing professors said, “If you want to make money in poetry and have people read it, write poetic fiction.” I followed that advice although the poetry was pretty dang subtle because popular genre, but my first novel’s mystery circled around why Thomas Holley Chivers believed Poe plagiarized him. My answer was really, really weird but strangely fitting.

    More people write bad traditional poetry than read it, sadly, but poetry and performance poetry seem to have morphed into rap and rap battles even for middle-class white folks. It’s quite vital. I love the word play, and the performers are judged on how deep the word play is. Sometimes, I need subtitles and more footnotes than “The Waste Land” to get everything, but I stick to subjects I’m interested in. If anyone would like a look at a rap battle, I recommend Epic Rap Battles of History on YouTube where famous folks, mainly dead, insult each other. A good intro is JRR Tolkien vs. George RR Martin. Link below. My second favorite is Thanos of AVENGERS fame vs. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man behind the Manhattan Project atomic bomb.

  13. I read a little poetry from time to time. Amanda Gorman certainly sparked interest. My father read “A Space Child’s Mother Goose” to me when I was little. I read it to my daughters.

    One day in high school there was a commotion in English class. Alex was going to be absent, his father had just one the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

  14. This is the kid coming out in me, Clare. Dr. Seuss. I think they’re pure gold, and my kids loved me reading DS to them. Storytelling through rhyme, through & through.

  15. I’ve always loved reading a wide variety of poets. Some wrote poetic fiction. One of my favorites is Elmore Leonard, once described by the New Musical Express as “the poet laureate of wild assholes with revolvers.” Indeed he was.

  16. Two comments, for what they’re worth, late in the day and people having made most of the relevant points:
    1) The “classics” are not all impenetrable. Donne. Keats. Burns. Etc. Nor are all modern poems impenetrable (Frost, Billy Collins (take a look at “Shoveling Snow with Buddha”), Seamus Heaney (“Postscript”)–just some examples.
    2) But many modern poems are impenetrable, and I don’t try to read them. My suspicion is that it takes a certain kind of brain to grasp some poetry.

  17. I “got into” (was “forced into”) poetry by my dad who had me copy “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in an attempt to improve my penmanship~ he was about as successful as the six-hundred…

    He did, however, get me hooked on Robert W. Service — especially “The Cremation of Sam Magee.”

    Middle school/high school introduced me to the usuals, but also Richard Brautigan and his unique way of wording metaphors.

    Lately, though, my OCD has me “working” in structured verse for the challenge.

    And songwriting, of course has its own challenges.

    Lastly, I’ve written, and need to illustrate, 2-1/2 children’s books inspired by the good Dr. S and old–school country lyrical rhythms (the 1/2 is a WIP).

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