By MARSHA MERCER
Have you read a poem in the past year? If so, you’re in the minority.
Just seven in 100 Americans read poetry even once in the past 12 months, government figures show, down from 17 percent in 1992.
“Poetry is going extinct,” a headline in The Washington Post lamented in 2015, after the 2012 statistics, the latest available, were released.
But wait. Sometimes called the Cinderella of literary forms, poetry isn’t dead; it’s not even asleep.
I won’t go as far as a British newspaper, which earlier this year heralded a “genuine renaissance” in poetry in the United Kingdom. But, in the United States, poetry, like an endangered species that’s been protected, is showing signs of life.
Poetry Out Loud programs in all 50 states invite students in grades 9 through 12 to compete in contests by memorizing and reciting poetry. The Library of Congress this year named the first national youth poet laureate.
A new book, “Why Poetry,” urges people to stop thinking of a poem as a riddle or code to crack and read what the words say to them.
“Like classical music, poetry has the unfortunate reputation for requiring special training and education to appreciate, which makes us feel (unnecessarily) as if we haven’t studied enough to read it,” Matthew Zapruder, a poet and former poetry editor of the New York Times Magazine, writes in “Why Poetry.”
Tracy K. Smith is the new poet laureate of the United States, the 22nd in a line of literary legends that includes Robert Frost, Richard Wilbur and Rita Dove. Dove also served as poet laureate of Virginia and holds the Commonwealth chair at the University of Virginia.
The author of three books of poetry, Smith, 45, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2012. Her 2015 memoir, “Ordinary Light,” was a finalist for the National Book Award. She and her husband, Raphael Allison, a literary scholar, teach at Princeton University and have three children.
Smith said a few months ago that as poet laureate she would take poetry beyond the ivy walls of universities and urban literary festivals to places where it is seldom heard or read. She received invitations from communities struggling with addiction as well as from nursing homes, hospitals and hospices.
“Nursing homes are often overlooked” when we think of poetry, she said in a telephone interview Wednesday, before her inaugural reading at the Library of Congress. “Poetry can be very useful at the end of life.”
The U.S. poet laureate, who is chosen by the Librarian of Congress, has few duties beyond fostering a national appreciation of the reading and writing poetry. And, if you’re wondering, no, this is not a case of your tax dollars at work.
The poet laureate’s stipend is privately funded through an endowment created in 1936 by Archer M. Huntington, a philanthropist whose mother was from Richmond. Among Huntington’s many gifts was the money to start the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News.
The title originally was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. In 1985, Congress changed it to Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.
When he had the job in 1963, Howard Nemerov was only half joking, the library says in a history, when he wrote, “The Consultant in Poetry is a very busy man, chiefly because he spends so much time talking with people who want to know what the Consultant in Poetry does.”
For Smith, who still remembers the thrill of discovering Emily Dickinson in fifth grade, her job will be to make poetry less stressful and more enjoyable.
“People have anxiety about poetry,” she said. They see a poem as an object “that must be analyzed to death to be enjoyed or understood.”
But there’s no need to feel obliged to wrestle hidden meaning from poems. Plus, who couldn’t benefit from taking a few minutes from our busy, tech- and information-overloaded days to let poetry speak to us?
“Poems teach us how to read them,” Smith says. So, when her students read a poem for the first time, she starts with a simple question: “What do you notice?”
It’s a good question, one I plan to ask myself more often – and not only when I’m reading a poem.
© 2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.