Today is April 30th, 2015. To some this is merely another Thursday before a Friday; however for some, April 30th marks the last day of National Poetry Writing Month. For many poets, including myself, it meant following along daily writing prompts, mainly disseminated through social media sites, such as Twitter or Facebook.
My month started off strong with ten consecutive days of long-form poetry, in addition to the micro-poetry (less than 140 characters) I post on Twitter or Instagram. Unlike in years past where I was able to write a long-form poem each and every day, I found myself challenged this year with other commitments. I resorted to posting either a haiku (a traditional style Japanese poem consisting of three lines, with five, seven and five syllables, respectively) or a cinqku. A cinqku is also a 17-syllable poem, but this consists of five lines of two, three, four, six and two syllables, respectively.
Then on the morning of April 14th, I stood in front of my eldest lad’s school, snapped a black and white photo and promptly tweeted out a haiku. In doing so, I suddenly had the urge to try something different. Given it was National Poetry Writing Month; I contacted the school principal to try to arrange for a poetry contest for the school. It was a very simple poetry contest. All the students had to do was write a poem titled, “I Love My School” and on the last day of the month (today) I would come to the school and award from school spirit clothing. Seemed pretty easy, eh?
Then I had higher ambitions. As Twitter’s unofficial poet laureate, I am one of the largest promoters of poetry on Twitter. I’m constantly scouring Twitter for great poetry. Within Twitter, Instagram and other social media networks, the access to poetry is constant. One of my phrases I love to use is, “Make a difference, don’t be a coincidence.” So with this in mind, I thought I could instead roll out a nationwide poetry contest, using the same poem titled, “I Love My School” and instead of school spirit, I would award three prizes, all of which would go to the school that the winning student poet wrote their poem about. In total, a nominal about of $600 total that I would donate to these schools, just for writing a poem. Seemed pretty easy, eh?
From April 15th to April 28th, I waited and waited and waited for submissions to roll in. My post of the contest had been tweeted and shared and commented on various social media networks. And guess what happened? Absolutely nothing. I didn’t receive one submission. As I commented on my “Walk and Talk” on Periscope (Twitter’s new live-streaming app) yesterday morning, I felt like a total failure in my attempt to inspire children to write a simple poem about their love for their school. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Six days earlier, there was an article in the Washington Post titled, “Poetry is going extinct, government data shows.
According to the “Survey on Public Participation in the Arts”, as highlighted in the Washington Post article, “Since 2002, the share of poetry-readers has contracted by 45 percent—resulting in the steepest decline in participation in any literary genre,” the study concludes. Over the past 20 years, the downward trend is nearly perfectly linear — and doesn’t show signs of abating.” It was further highlighted that the percentage of U.S. adults that had read poetry in the previous twelve-months was approximately 6.7%, nearly on par with those that went to a jazz concert, but slightly above those that went to an opera performance. Egads.
I’ve read plenty of points and counter-points to why people believe poetry is in fact dying or nearly on the precipice of extinction. Some have blamed hip-hop, others have blamed the spoken word movement or “slam poetry”, but I’m going to throw another curve ball into this whole discussion. When I think of promotion of poetry and exposing new people everyday to poetry, I want to bring you back to a point earlier in this post about how many people have called me Twitter’s unofficial poet laureate. A poet laureate’s duty is to promote poetry across the land, to make sure poetry is still in demand.
So what if one of the reasons that poetry may be going extinct in some fashion is because of the current status of the United States’ state poet laureates. By looking at the website for the Library of Congress, as well as cross-referencing through Wikipedia, I was able to come up with an accurate list of the current U.S. poet laureates broken down by each state. I was rather saddened when I found out that some states have abolished their state poet laureate positions all together.
In the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, there are currently 11 states that do not have, nor allow, a poet laureate. If I really wanted to be specific, I’d actually include Idaho as well, as they technically have only a writer in residence, which can be either a poet or novelist; however, Indiana has both a poet laureate and a premier poet. Well that’s pretty darn cool. In further review, I couldn’t find a new New York state poet laureate after Marie Howe’s appointment expired at the end of 2014. The Tennessee poet laureate, Margaret Britton Vaughn’s appointment was previously extended to April 1, 2015, but I could not locate any information indicating her term had been extended any further.
For those budding poets in the 11 states that don’t currently have a poet laureate, this should give you as well as me, a slight pause. I then wanted to get a better understanding of the background and age of the state poet laureates. By including Idaho, I looked at each biography of all of the state poet laureates and could classify each poet laureate as professor (current or former), writer or teacher. Out of 40 states:
- 67.5% or 27 were current or former professors;
- 27.5% or 11 were classified as writers; and
- 5.0% or 2 were classified as teachers of poetry.
Based upon this data, it is pretty apparent that since I do not have an advanced degree such as a Master of Fine Arts in Writing or a Doctorate of some sorts, the odds are against me becoming a state poet laureate. I guess I’m out of luck here too. Lastly, I wanted to look at the age of the U.S. state poet laureates. Perhaps this factor was the most eye-opening for why poetry may be facing extinction in the near future.
I was able to ascertain a birth year through either my Google Fu skills (kind of like a word nerd ninja), biographies, Facebook profiles or various websites, I was able to obtain the birth year for 24 of the 40 U.S. state poet laureates. The oldest U.S. state poet laureate is Andrew Glaze, Alabama’s state poet laureate, who was born in 1920 and is approximately 95 years old. The youngest is Eric McHenry; Kansas’ state poet laureate was born in 1972 and is approximately 43 years old. The median age was approximately 67 years old and the average was 69 years old. Well, since I’m in my mid-40’s, I guess this is strike three for me.
Lastly, I was also a bit saddened to see that the vast majority of the U.S. state poet laureates are not active on social media, let alone the traffic to their websites is unfortunately abysmal. Even my favorite modern-day poet, former U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, has many active fan accounts on Twitter, yet think of all the new poets that could be introduced to my love, “Poetry,” simply through the effective use of websites, social media. Collectively, we are publishing a mass amount of short-form poetry, in the forms of tweets and posts, which I love the most.
Each day I observe existing and new poets writing amazing poetry on various social networks, howeve the cards are stacked against us by the fact there are fewer U.S. adults reading poetry than ever before, the economics for poetry publishers has been greatly diminished, states are reducing or eliminating the need for state poet laureates, as well as the existing crop of U.S. state poet laureates is withering on the vine with each passing day. Perhaps we need to re-define what it means to be a poet laureate and embrace all of the tools that are available to poets today, including social media and self-publishing. Together we can reverse the trend of declining poetry readership; therefore:
I dream of a digital world,
where new poet laureates
will be digitally heard.
Poetry is not dead
Though some may become extinct.