By Colleen Abel, Hippo Reads contributor
It's that time of year. Resolutions are being made. Parties are being organized. And the "Best of" year-end lists are popping up everywhere, stuffing our Facebook feeds and gobbling headlines in our newspapers. There's a website devoted to nothing but collating year-end lists. In 2013, The New Yorker published a list about why we love year-end lists. And I'll be the first to admit, I love them, too.
But I have to ask this of the 2015 listmakers: where's all the poetry?
It's true that most mainstream publication run articles every so often debating whether poetry is dead or not. These sometimes correlate to the release of the National Endowment for the Arts' Survey on Public Participation in the Arts, which always contains frankly dismal news for poetry. The 2012 report shows that poetry was less popular than weaving and jazz concerts. But these "is poetry dead" articles always end the same way: poets descending on the comments section and penning letters to the editors to insist that there are more poets and publishing venues than ever. And they're right. Poetry is very much alive.
That's why it's all the more puzzling that the year-end lists are ignoring the flood of poetry released in 2015.
I first noticed it when I looked at NPR's list. As has been the case since NPR rolled out this style of year-end book list in 2013, poetry is grouped together with short stories, presumably to make the category look meatier than either genre would on its own. As I scrolled through the category, I thought it seemed more skeletal than usual. So I did a quick test. In 2012, NPR picked six poetry books for its year-end list. In 2013, it picked nine -- ten if you count a book of critical prose about poetry by Robert Pinsky. Last year, five books made the list. This year?
Three may not seem all that big of a drop from 2014's count of five, but it feels like a drastic downsize from nine, just two years ago.
It's not just NPR, either. New York Times 100 Notable Books picked two poetry titles, one of which wasn't even published in 2015, but which appeared in October of 2014. The New Yorker asked 17 critics to talk about the best books they read that year; there were three poetry choices, all by the same critic (poet and novelist Ben Lerner.) Even yearendlists.com hasn't run a poetry list since 2012.
The lack of poetry collections in mainstream media is more than just a bummer for those of us who love and support poetry. I have taught poetry to non-traditional students (adults who have full-time day jobs and families) for the past eight years. Most of them haven't read a poem since high school. A fair number of them are surprised that poems don't all rhyme. Few of them can name an American poet after Robert Frost. And it has little to do with their levels of education: they just aren't exposed to it. How can we lament a lack of poetry knowledge if book critics hardly even read it?
And they know they should. Brooklyn Magazine published "The 12 Best Books of 2015 That Didn't Get Enough Attention" and included Terrance Hayes' How to Be Drawn. In the blurb, Kristin Iverson wrote, "There are readers who will devour pretty much anything put in front of them, but still shrink at the mere sight of a book of poems." After praising Hayes, she concludes that the book made the staff want to make "a promise to ourselves to read more poetry."
This justly-deserved praise of Hayes' collection points to another issue with these year-end lists. Diversity in reviewing has been an ongoing conversation in 2015. Roxane Gay wrote a highly influential article for NPR in May in response to the New York Times' publication of a summer reading list that featured all white authors. Gay wrote, "The message [writers of color] get is, 'We don't see you. We don't need you.'"
What book critics don't seem to understand is that including more poetry in their roundups would likely also contribute to the diversity of these lists. The 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry was a writer of color. So is our Poet Laureate, who released a new collection this year. So was the National Book Award Winner. (So is Terrance Hayes.) As it turns out, maybe genre diversity needs to be a part of the conversation, too -- it's inextricably bound up with other types of inclusivity.
Whether we like it or not, these lists do have the power to suggest what is valued and whose voices are worth being listened to. And poets -- in all their glorious variety -- are currently getting the message that we aren't seen or needed. While some people wouldn't miss poetry if it went gently into that good night, I doubt many book critics and other lovers of literature want it to disappear. So, while I don't love the idea that "read more poetry" gets put on a list of 2016 goals alongside "eat more vegetables" and "floss daily," we have to start somewhere. So go ahead. Make your resolution.