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Poets and Audiences: The Evolution of Poetry in America

(Released July 2012)

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  by Beth Dwoskin  


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Change in Millennium, Changes in Poetry


Paradoxically, the teaching of writing has taken off in the academic world. There are more than 200 creative writing programs at colleges and universities nationwide, and it is there that poets have come to dwell. Poetry is now a self-enclosed art, written by poets for other poets to read. Being published is even more of a goal than in the past, because publication is essential to academic success. Like other academics, though, poets do not expect their work to be read by the non-academic public—not even those who are college graduates. In the new millenium bookstores are disappearing, and poetry readings occur mostly on campuses if they occur at all.

In 1991, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts Dana Gioia published an essay in the Atlantic Monthly titled “Can Poetry Matter?” At that time, Gioia blamed poetry’s decline on what he called its “subculture”—its retreat into college and university English departments, with the attendant need to publish ever more poetry to feed the academic gristmill. The result is that more poetry books were being published than ever, but their readers are mainly other poets.

Gioia mentions the dearth of poetry in periodical print media as an effect rather than a cause of poetry’s decline. He does make an important point about how the audience for poetry is the same as the audience for other vital arts such as jazz and classical music, foreign films, and live theater and dance. All these arts were suffering in 1991 and are in worse straits now after the 2008 recession. Gioia made six suggestions to increase the audience for poetry, two of which have taken off on their own as the millennium changed: A greater emphasis on performance of poetry, and greater use of radio to promote poetry. 

Edgar Allan Poe The Raven
Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" as read by Garrison Keillor on his radio show, "Prairie Home Companion," YouTube

In 1993, Garrison Keillor, the host of the popular radio program, A Prairie Home Companion, began a daily series on NPR called The Writer’s Almanac. During the five-minute show, Keillor notes the birthdays of poets, writers, politicians, scientists, and other important figures who have contributed to our culture in significant ways, and explains why they are significant. He then reads a randomly-selected poem in an understated, neutral style. The program has been a big success, airing on more than 400 NPR stations and spawning a website with downloadable podcasts of the show. The success of The Writer’s Almanac inspired Keillor to publish two anthologies of the most popular poems from the show: Good Poems in 2003 and Good Poems for Hard Times in 2006. Both books are in print and still selling in 2012.

Garrison Keillor’s achievements would not be possible without National Public Radio, which does receive partial subsidy from the government. It is nevertheless a medium which exists only insofar as it pleases its listeners. The Writer’s Almanac has no relationship with any universities beyond their hosting of it on their radio outlets, and Keillor’s poetry anthologies were published privately. His success not only revives the use of radio as a medium for poetry, but does it entirely outside of the “subculture” of academic poetry. 

Three performance phenomena of the late twentieth century in the world of poetry have exploded in popularity in the twenty-first. One is rap music. Though at first glance it may not seem to fit the definition of poetry, in fact “Rap characteristically uses the four-stress, accentual line that has been the most common meter for spoken popular poetry in English … “ (Gioia, 32) Though music is played in the background to accentuate and strengthen the rhythm of the piece, the words themselves are spoken, not sung, just as poems were sometimes recited by the Beats in coffeehouses with bongo drums playing for accent.

Rap music developed among some of the most alienated members of our society—young African-American men. As was the case with so many aspects of American culture throughout the twentieth century, the white mainstream world lost no time in adapting rap music, and it quickly became commercialized and coarsened. When rap is at its best though, it expresses the authentic urban African-American experience. Because the language can be direct and vulgar, because the music is not always original, and because it is such a commercial success, rap has little respectable status as poetry or music. Nevertheless it has two characteristics that have distinguished poetry in ages past—regular meter, and popularity. As is the case with Garrison Keillor’s radio work, the poetry of rap has developed entirely outside of the academic poetry world.

poetry slam
Judges hold up scores during a poetry slam at the Bowery Poetry Club on December 6, 2002, in New York City.

The poetry “slam” was invented in 1985 and has become the most popular medium for poetry in our time. In a poetry slam, poetry enthusiasts attend a gathering, and five or so among them are chosen as judges. Poets then read their poetry to the audience and are rated by the judges. Winners can compete in slams at higher levels, much like the world of sports. Slam poetry is so successful that slams are held all over the world. The enterprise is egalitarian in that anyone at all can compete, and at the same time brutal in its competitiveness. It is especially attractive to teenagers because it requires no credentials, just the courage of self-expression. Again, slam poetry developed completely independently of the academy poetry subculture. The reaction of the academic world to slam poetry is typically negative, but there are those who recognize its importance.

Rap and poetry slams are vehicles for urban poetry. In contrast, cowboy poetry is a regional style, mainly centered in the western states. Cowboy poetry is neither a new genre, nor is it written only by and about cowboys. As an informal genre it has existed for more than a century, but it achieved recognition and status after 1985, when the Western Folklife Center began holding the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering.  Cowboy poetry is markedly more successful than traditional poetry. When Baxter Black, who is perhaps the most nationally-known cowboy poet, was asked what distinguishes cowboy poetry from other poetry, he answered: “Here is the single most obvious distinction.  It is popular and it sells.” (Bock , 3) Cowboy poetry is usually formal, like rap, and has distinctly rural themes—ranching, cowherding, farming, and hunting.  Like rap and slam poetry, cowboy poetry is meant to be read aloud, and it is almost completely removed from the world of academic poetry.  In fact, the Western Folklife Center is located in Elko, Nevada, far from any academic centers, and the culture includes western Canadians.

cowboy poet Red Steagall
Cowboy poet Red Steagall still works occasionally as a cowboy and preserves his life through singing and poetry.

Rap, slams, cowboy poetry —late twentieth century genres that are going strong in the new millenium. Individual poems from rap and slams are ephemeral, not often seen in mainstream print markets, and cowboy poetry is a very specialized genre in print. The audiences for all three are primarily aural. The mainstream response ranges from indifference, to cautious interest, to hostility. Most academics would probably say that none of the three genres can be defined as real poetry. Just so did they say that jazz and rock and roll were not real music, or that modern, non-representational paintings were not real art, or that movies could not be real drama.

In 2003, Dana Gioia reevaluated the state of American poetry in his article, “Disappearing ink: poetry at the end of print culture”. In the article, he delineates the revolutionary changes in twenty-first century poetry: it is predominantly oral; it uses non-print media; it is overwhelmingly formal; and it thrives in popular culture, outside of the academic world.

Our new century has brought other changes to American poetry. The most obvious development is the one that has impacted the entire world—the Internet. The Internet has accelerated the death of periodical print media, but it more than compensates with its potential to promote poetry to the millions. It’s possible to make a credible start to the study of any kind of poetry on the Internet. There is a wealth of information about individual poets, movements in poetry, journals and publishers, contests, and academic programs. The Internet has replaced print magazines and newspapers as a venue for poetry, but many regular poetry journals now live online. The Internet actually improves on print media because users can bypass the editorial process and post a poem on their own if they have the wherewithal to create their own blogs, sites, etc.

The Academy of American Poets pioneered their website,, in 1997 and launched National Poetry Month in 1996. The April event offers a wealth of celebrations, readings, and resources for teachers and librarians. The Academy gets some government funding, but both it and the Poetry Foundation are private.

In 2002, pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly startled the world of American literature by donating a staggering $100 million dollars to the Modern Poetry Association, since renamed the Poetry Foundation. Along with her previous donations, this money allowed the foundation to endow its magazine, Poetry, to fund prizes in Lilly’s name, and to actually build a building in Chicago from scratch, dedicated solely to poetry. Opened in Chicago in 2011, the Poetry Foundation headquarters contains a library and exhibit space, as well as the offices of the magazine. The Foundation “aspires to alter the perception that poetry is a marginal art, and to make it directly relevant to the American public.” (Poetry Foundation) The Foundation makes good use of the Internet, posting a spectrum of poems, podcasts, event listings, and a poetry app.

So, two questions emerge from this examination. Will and/or should poetry survive in our time as a performance art? Is the democratization of poetry through slams, cowboy conventions , and the Internet destroying it or strengthening it? A third question might be, where would poetry be now without these modern developments?

© 2012, ProQuest LLC. All rights reserved.

List of Visuals

  1. Bock, Elisa. “How the West Is Fun.” Texas Monthly. Emmis Publishing LP, April 2002. Web. 28 Jun. 2012.

  2. Gioia, Dana. "Can Poetry Matter?" The Atlantic Monthly May 1991: 94. Print.

  3. Gioia, Dana. "TITLE TELLS ALL." Poetry Apr 2004: 43-9. Print.

  4. Gioia, Dana. Disappearing Ink : Poetry at the End of Print Culture. Saint Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 2004. Print.

  5. McQuade, Donald, and Publishers Harper & Row. The Harper American Literature. New York: Harper & Row, 1987. Print.

  6. Phillips, Christopher. "PERFORMING CRITICISM: How Digital Audio can Help Students Learn (and Teach) Poetry." Transformations 22.1 (2011): 53,68,145. Print.

  7. Pinsky, Robert. "Poetry and American Memory." The Atlantic Monthly Oct 1999 1999: 60-70. Print.

  8. Polo, Marco. "An Introduction to American Poetry." Marco Polo, [np]. Web. 21 Jun. 2012.

  9. Poetry Foundation. "Poetry Foundation: History and Mission." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, 2011.Web. 21 Jun. 2012.

  10. Spaulding, John. "Poetry and the Media: The Decline of Popular Poetry." Journal of Popular Culture 33.2 (1999): 147-53. Print.

  11. Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. New York: New American Library, c1980. Print. Signet Classic.