We are in the midst of a poetry renaissance. There are many signs of the poetry revival in our midst. Hundreds of small poetry presses. Reading series in local communities. Def Poetry Jam and Brave New Voices on HBO. The proliferation of MFA programs at universities. Robin Becker reports that when she began attending AWP (the annual conference of writers sponsored by the professional writers' association), about a thousand people attended each year; in 2014, over 11,000 people attended.
A variety of people and organizations support the appreciation and revelry surround poetry. Each April, the Academy of American Poets sponsors National Poetry Month, an initiative that highlights poetry and poets. Increasingly, the Poetry Foundation, publishers of Poetry, offers and sponsors a variety of poetry programs, through the munificence of Ruth Lilly, contributing to a greater public profile for poetry. Generous legacies from a handful of donors like Lilly support poetry as a cultural project. More importantly, poets around our country share their passion and commitment for poetry in daily, local ways. I salute the national and local organizations and the poets that facilitate this renaissance and make poetry a vibrant part of our culture. In many ways, there is not a better moment to be a poet and love poetry.
Yet, I want to ask a provocative question: are too many people writing poetry? This question brings a cascade of other questions. Is it possible for too many people to write poetry? Don't we always need more voices to assembly a polyphonic cultural democracy? If too many people are writing poetry, how many people writing poetry is optimal? Does it matter if too many people are writing poetry? Is there any way to stop people from writing poetry? How do we tell the people who should be writing poetry from the people who should not? So what if too many people are writing poetry?
As poetry increases its public profile and more people participate in its public celebrations, it makes send that more people try their hand at writing poetry themselves. For some, this situation is cause for celebration. More people writing poetry should translate to more people reading and appreciating poetry, more people advocating on behalf of poetry in the public sphere.
Yet, with so many people writing poetry, how do we recognize the best poetry? How do we encourage and nurture poets with the greatest talent, the strongest commitment to producing poetry over a lifetime? How do we ensure that the poets that we nurture are selected on the basis of talent and reflect a diversity of voices in American culture?
Poetry is a cacophony of voices. I want more people to write poems, especially queer people, feminists, and people of color. For too long LGBT voices, feminist voices, and voices of people of color have been excluded or eluded from literary cultures and canons. As much as I want more queer, feminist poetry, I want more readers for poems written and circulate in contemporary American literary culture. I want more readers for our work.
Are too many people writing poetry? Perhaps, but not enough people are reading poetry. We need readers to make our words relevant. What poem have you read today?