US Poetry Readership in Tens of Millions?

04/25/2015 11:38 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2015

Cold hard facts. You can't dispute them.

Looking to settle the debate about poetry's slow decline into death, The Washington Post cites the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts to show a ten-year steady downtrend in public participation with poetry. The graph slides like a ramp down to just 6.7% in 2012.

It seems like a measly slice of the pie. But hang on a minute--if this survey is representative, then that 6.7% of 240.2 million US adults in 2012 works out to about 16.1 million people who say that they read poetry in the past year in America alone.

As a reference point, when Walt Whitman registered the copyright for his poetic masterpiece Leaves of Grass in 1855, there were 26.7 million Americans in the whole country, including children. Back then more than 20% of Americans were illiterate, and couldn't enjoy poetry if they wanted to (as compared to less than 1% today).

So before we sound the death knell based on numbers, perhaps we should give poetry--one of humanity's oldest art forms--the benefit of a slightly broader context.

As our global population explodes, poetry may not be keeping pace in the same way as movies or rock 'n' roll. But the poetry-loving cohort is a robust and enthusiastic group, having outlived the collapse of many empires, reading great works by candlelight through the inevitable dark ages that come.

Poetry is a human instinct, and for all the sophistication and complexity we have created in our world, we remain able to be deeply moved, provoked, and excited by words alone.

People have always read poetry. Millions--millions!--of people still do. That's not just poetic license--according to recent survey data, it's a fact.

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