“It is difficult

to gets the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.”

                       — From Asphodel, that Greeny Flower, William Carlos Williams

Welcome!  I’m Alison Servis, a Masters student in Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design studying Commmunication Planning and Information Design (CPID).  Over the next few months, I’ll be researching how people feel about poetry and why poetry readership has decreased significantly in recent years (maybe decades).

I’m hoping that by understanding what it is that gets people interested poetry, as well as what makes people dislike poetry or feel disinterested in it, that I can find new ways of engaging new readers with poetry.

Over the last few decades, poetry as an artform has seen a shrinking audience. According to a National Endowment of the Arts survey in 2008 poetry reached its lowest readership in 16 years with only 8.3 percent of adults responding that they had read any poetry in the preceding 12 months. This statistic is in stark contrast to rising numbers of fiction readers, as well as the occasional online efforts being made within the poetry community to attract readers. One conclusion reached in the NEA report, was that “it seems likely that people’s perceptions of poetry are the greatest barriers to participation” (The Daily Beast). People’s perceptions are determined by when, how and by whom they were first exposed to poetry, but also by their continued exposure to poetry and poets.

In the current poetry environment, there is often an attitude that if you are not instantly drawn to poetry and don’t “get it” intuitively, that poetry is just not meant for you. Many poets and their readers border on elitist and within the community a common attitude is that “to call a poem ‘accessible’ is practically an insult”. The poetry community, in general, has become very self-confined and less interested in finding new audiences. As a result, poetry might seem unwelcoming to an outsider, especially since the work in the poetry community is highly allusive and self-referential. Regardless of whether this inward movement is a cause or effect, the fact is that poetry readership has decreased significantly.

During the course of this project, I hope to find ways to engage new and “relapsed” poetry readers so that they find new ways of seeing poetry and read, write, or listen to poetry more frequently than before. To discover the best ways to engage or re-interest readers, I plan to pinpoint more accurately where the root of the readership problem is in poetry. Knowing where the pain points are for the audience (whether captive or not), I hope to be better equipped to find a solution that addresses some of the reasons people, young and old alike, avoid or ignore poetry, whether they stem from comprehension or “PR” issues. I hope that by discovering and learning more about the preconceptions people have about poetry: how they’ve been taught in the past, what they think about poetry and poets, its value and relevance (or lack their of), and what it might take to make them change their mind, I’ll be able to address and, when applicable, correct misconceptions.

A measure of success for me is observing even slight increases in users’ poetry reading habits and changes in their attitudes towards poetry. I hardly expect to get most people reading poetry daily or attending weekly spoken word performances, although that would be great. I truly believe that small steps in increasing readership will do a lot to benefit the community. If I were able to talk to a user after completing the project and found that the frequency with which they read and share poetry had increased, that would be success. Similarly, even if a non-reader were still unlikely to read poetry unprompted, if their general attitude towards poetry as an art improved, that would also be success.

Other questions I am hoping to answer that might provide insight into the issue:

• Do people learn to appreciate poetry more by learning to write poetry?

• How can we match people to the poetry they might most appreciate and “get” so that they feel more comfortable in the genre and able to branch out?

• How is poetry currently presented/distributed? Is it effective?



One thought on “About the Project

  1. Fascinating project/post. I was unaware that there was any empirical data re. the reading of poetry. Does this demographic track through all ages? Classes? Educational backgrounds? This is US data? There is a poetry shift too? I think of thousands who listen to spoken word/rap? Does that very modern, contemporary poetry count as ‘poetry’? I won’t blather on. Greatly interesting post.

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