I started researching Poetry Therapy as part of my Master’s in Clinical Counseling program. Reading paper after paper about how poetry and poetic language can be used in therapy, I wondered: do people still read poetry in 2024?
Although I care deeply about the written word, that doesn’t mean others do. It seems that everywhere I look articles are questioning the resiliency of libraries and mourning a lack of literacy. Given that landscape, I wondered if researching poetry was even worth my time.
So I did what any good student would do. I decided to follow my curiosity and find out.
My Method: A Non-Scientific Survey
The survey design was simple: 12-questions in Google Forms. I asked for demographic information first. Then I asked about whether people read poetry and whether they write poetry. I split the writing question in two. The first question asked about “when you were in middle or high school” and the second asked about their habits as an adult.
I sent it to the other students in my cohort as a test run. Once I knew it worked, I posted it to all of my social media platforms. I also emailed a few people who I thought might be willing to help spread the word. That was Friday.
By Monday, I had 184 responses and put out a post asking for people to help me reach 200. Within 24-hours, I’d topped 300. It seemed like the topic really spoke to people. Either that, or they just really wanted to feel good about helping a grad student. I closed the survey with 312 responses. It was time to analyze the results.
Who Reads Poetry?
Some limitations quickly became clear. My respondents were overwhelmingly white. Only 2 people identified as Hispanic, two as Asian, and one as Black. That says something pretty embarrassing about the diversity of my social media contacts, but there was nothing I could do at this point. Hopefully, I can get a more diverse sample in a future iteration.
Respondents were also majority female, with just 17% identifying as Male and 6% as nonbinary. Age diversity was pretty good, with about 25% between 45 and 54, and 26% between 35 and 44. Again, this is probably reflecting the makeup of my social network.
So, if you’re trying to generalize from this data, the best you can say is that it tells you what white women think of poetry, and maybe gives you a glimpse into the attitudes of white men. If you are a person of color or a member of the LGBTQ+ community and would like to partner with me to reach a more diverse audience, I would love to talk to you.
Do People Still Read Poetry?
So, the curiosity question, do people still read poetry?
The answer is, yes! As the graphic below shows, only 15.4% of people said they NEVER read poetry. Just 3.5% said they read poetry daily. The largest proportion, almost 40%, said they read poetry at least 1-2 times per year.
Even more interesting, to me at least, was their answers to the question about whether they wrote poetry as an adult. More than half of respondents reported that they had written poetry as an adult.
When given a chance to select all the reasons why they wrote poetry, their answers were all over the place. About half of poets said they wrote to deal with feelings. Encouragingly, more than 42% said they wrote for fun. About 23% said they were in love at the time.
Revealing Comments from the Write-in Answers
All of the data above is interesting. We’ve definitely answered the core question. A+ for me. But the most revealing part is yet to come. The last (and very optional question) asked, “how has poetry impacted your life?”
That question got a more than 68% response rate with 214 people typing an answer. Of those who responded, 6.7% wrote some variation of “it hasn’t.” A few (2.5%) gave ambivalent responses, writing statements like:
- I appreciate the value that poetry brings to our society but it personally is not for me.
- I don’t love the process of trying to understand the themes that aren’t easy to notice. That’s why I don’t read it often or write it on my own.
- Honestly, not much. I think the only poetry I really appreciate right now is a good children’s book the rhymes. Otherwise I don’t find it has had much impact.
- Not much. Probably more than I think though
Does School Make Kids Hate Poetry?
A general theme seems to be that the way poetry is presented in school can make people less comfortable with the format.
- In terms if [sic] school, poetry and literature irritated me because I wanted to enjoy then and not analyze why the author wrote things certain ways.
- I always felt so lost in school when reading poems…
- Honestly, it’s been a source of confusion and frustration mostly, having had to interpret it or write it in school. I don’t understand (or appreciate) most of it although there are a few pieces that resonate with me…
On the other hand, some traced their positive feelings about poetry back to school experiences.
- In that class a fellow student told me I was a poet and I never looked back.
- I have taken many college level poetry classes and I always learn that I don’t hate the genre.
- I was introduced to poetry by a teacher because I struggled in school. I was never graded for spelling or punctuation just my poetry.
- I love simple poetry and still remember poems from elementary school which was a long time ago!
Poetry As a Part of Life
Some who had positive views of poetry offered vignettes of how it fit into their lives:
- my kids love writing poetry for entertainment! My daughter writes poetry often and will send it in the family chat to share. It reminded me about our ‘poetry tea time’ where we would read poetry and have fancy snacks-they were so little! Now that I reflect more about poetry, it brings a sort of warmth and comforting memory.
- I considered myself a visual artist when I was younger and headed off to [redacted] University. … after several years in an abusive relationship I couldn’t make art. I turned to journaling and writing to figure things out. My first writing teacher was impressed with my work and made the connection between visual art and writing. She said I already knew how to make the pictures all I needed was to find the words. In that class a fellow student told me I was a poet and I never looked back. I don’t often say it anymore, but poetry saved my life. I was disappearing until I found an alternate mode of expression. … Last year a had a stroke which impacted my speech and writing. It was devastating at first, but it was also a great incentive to keep going through speech therapy and continue to reroute my brain. My happy to say after nine months I am able to write poetry again.
- I have won free plane tickets around the world twice for my funny poetry skills!
- I recently looked back at all the poetry I wrote in high school and college and it is like a blueprint to my soul. I used it as a way to express my emotions, sort my feelings and understand whatever I was struggling with at the time.
Four respondents mentioned the poet Amanda Gorman by name, all four spoke specifically about her inauguration poem. Others mentioned Mary Oliver, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Dr. Seuss, Robert Frost (2), Psalms, William Carlos Williams, Wisława Szymborska, and e e cummings.
Music and Poetry Connections
Several respondents (2.88%) also highlighted the value of song lyrics and the connection between music and poetry:
- All songs and music incorporate poetry at some level even purely instrumental music the notes and chords build a poem. Music/songs/sounds etc are running through my brain 24/7. Song and music help express thoughts … There isn’t a single part of my life poetry isn’t part of though most poetry isn’t thought of as poetry.
- Poetry is the basis for all lyrics, so I cannot POSSIBLY overstate the impact that poetry has had on my life.
Do People Still Read Poetry? Conclusions and Takeaways
Yes, people still read poetry. They engage with it on social media, watch videos of people performing poetry, and read it to their children. They write poetry to deal with emotions, especially love. Like all many forms of expression, poetry has morphed to fit a digital, more connected world. The way we teach and talk about poetry may need to change to keep up with the times.
If poetry is idealized as an exclusive art, studied only by scholars and school children, it will die. But, if we recognize that poetry is on our radios, in our social media feeds, and in our love stories it can change our lives for the better. Our job is simply to keep reading and keep writing.
(And please contact me if you want to help make the next iteration of this survey more diverse!)