Cruelest Month or Piercing March’s Drought? -- National Poetry Month and the Future of Poetry and Other Reading in the US

4/07/2011 11:30:00 AM

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April is National Poetry Month in the US. Two of the best-known poems in the English language famously begin by invoking April — casting the month in two very different lights. With a little shift of historical context and original meaning, these two attitudes might very well describe the two main views of the future of poetry — and books and recreational reading at large — in modern American society.

T.S. Eliot begins The Waste Land: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.”

Geoffrey Chaucer, writing nearly six centuries before, starts The Canterbury Tales with these lines: “When in April the sweet showers fall/ That pierce March’s drought to the root and all/ And bathed every vein in liquor that has power/ To generate therein and sire the flower...”

Eliot’s April looks away from the future, afraid, and pining for another age. This type of April is not the arrival of a welcome spring, but the destruction of beloved winter. In this view, genre and the culture built around that genre are inextricably tied to the medium of delivery. When that medium — poetry reviews and paper books, for example —dies, so does the genre and culture.

It is easy, at first glance, to agree with Eliot when it comes to the state of poetry consumption in the US: April is the cruelest month (for poetry lovers) in serves as reminder that poetry has long been on the decline in Western culture — at least in the conventional Chaucer-and-Eliot-are-Poets-with-a-Capital-P sense.

Google Insights for Search shows a general year-over-year decline in searches for [poetry], [poems], and [poets] 2004 to the present. Likewise, searches for [poetry bookstores] have been in decline year-over-year. None of this should come as a surprise. A National Endowment for the Arts 2008 report shows only 8.3% of American adults read any poetry at all in the previous 12 months.

Yet, poetry’s history has been one of constant change, breaking boundaries set by older generations, and experimentation—in content, form, and media of delivery. All these facts might point not to a death of poetry and reading, but toward a transformation whose contours are yet to fully emerge.

This hypothesis fits more with Chaucer’s themes of April — exuberant, bounding forward, full of surprising growth, embarking on adventure. We can easily imagine Chaucer himself delighting (and finding ample material) in the hyper-share culture of social media streams--in what other age has the drama (romantic and otherwise) of so many people been so assiduously and so openly recorded? Beyond this, the restrictions of Twitter could be seen as parallels to the restrictions of earlier poetic forms, like varieties of sonnet or haiku. The complex of technologies that make up the digital age — like the rise of mass printing before it — is shaping language, spoken and written, in unexpected ways.

Concrete facts support this view of the future of poetry and reading. Around the middle of last year, Amazon announced that Kindle books had outpaced the sale of hardcover books by a ratio of 143:100. A decade of rising text-dependent technologies--SMS, Twitter, and the adoption of smartphones have given rise to world where teachers must demand that students stop reading and writing — rather than begging them to read and write. Google has scanned and cataloged about 15 million of the estimated 146 million unique books in the world. A significant number of these texts are in the public domain--including many works of world literature and landmark poetry.

Additionally, Americans continue to turn to a diverse choir of poet's voices in times of delight, sorrow, love, hope, despair, and wonder. Some of the most searched poets in the US in recent weeks include:

  • Maya Angelou
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Edgar Allen Poe
  • Kobayashi Issa
  • Robert Frost
  • Emily Dickinson
  • Dante Alighieri
  • Langston Hughes
  • Taylor Mali
  • John Keats
And these are some of the most searched themes related to poetry:
  • Love poems
  • Rhyming dictinonary
  • Poemas de amor
  • Haiku
  • Poems about life
  • Metaphor
  • Dicton
  • Nursery ryhmes
  • Sad poems
  • Funny poems
Google’s Wonder Wheel displaying popular related themes and queries around [American poetry]

As National Poetry month unfolds — and as people buy books for spring and summer vacations — booksellers online and offline might take some of these themes into account into their marketing and some of these authors into their inventories. Meanwhile, and more broadly, they would do well to approach this new era with a sense of opportunity and delight. The sale and consumption of verse and literature may not remain what we think them to be today. But, this fits with the history of reading and writing — which began as an oral culture tradition and moved through papyrus, illuminated manuscript, movable type printing press, and LED screen.

Signs and models of such reinvention of reading culture already exist across America. For example, in St. Louis, the major independent bookstores have collaborated to form an “indie alliance”. A vibrant Twitter group promotes independent bookstores as a group travel destination from coast-to-coast. At the larger retailer end of the spectrum, free downloads of poetry direct to Kindles, Nooks, and other eReader devices will introduce classics to those who may not have paid for (or carried around in paper form) a copy of The Odyssey or The Divine Comedy.

Whether on an eReader, browsing in a bookstore, or looking for used volumes on an online book reseller’s website, the culture and economy of poetry and reading is, without doubt, in a state of ferment. Yet, a more hopeful, Chaucerian outlook might see it as the start of a new spring.

Posted by Paul Nauert, The Google Retail Team