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Does poetry matter?

28 July 2014

As two of this week's links demonstrate, poetry is contradictory in its audience and reach.

A huge audience is interested in poetry - more than one million people read poems at each year. But on the other hand poetry book sales, in the US as elsewhere, are meagre for all but the very best-known poets.

How is it that an artform which seems central to literature, offering distilled language and meaning in a succinct form, can be so easily ignored by many in the mainstream? In theory this should be poetry's moment, for the short form is perfect for the Internet.

Clearly there is a distinction between interest in individual poems and a liking for and consumption of poetry books. For many people a poem a day is all they aspire to and the Internet is the perfect way of delivering this, cheap, ie free, and reaching potentially all corners of the world. But poetry publishers struggle to stay in business, even though some of them have government funding still in the UK. It's remarkable that in the US, where philanthropy is much better based, there are no less than 278 small poetry presses, often drawing heavily on volunteers to help them keep going.

It is often said jokingly that so many people are poets that they completely outnumber the number of poetry readers, but there are no statistics to prove whether this is in fact the case. Poets are visible but poetry readers are not.

So what can be done to save poetry and extend its audience? Reading and buying it are major ways of helping to keep poets in business. Education doesn't do much for poetry on either side of the Atlantic and children's poetry is hard to find. But if substantially more people read it, that would make a real difference.