Can Poetry Books Keep Breaking Into the Mainstream?
When you go to any bookstore, the poetry section is probably one of the smallest sections if they have one at all. The last time I went through a Barnes and Noble poetry selection, they had a few ancient Greek classics, Shakespeare, some mid-20th Century American poets like Langston Hughes, but I only found one book by a contemporary writer. That book was Last Sext by Melissa Broder, who some may know better as So Sad Today for her popular Twitter account.
Recently, another writer by the name of Rupi Kaur came to my attention. The Guardian calls her an “Instapoet” for the large following for her poetry she accumulated on Instagram. Her debut book, Milk and Honey, sold over 500,000 copies and became a New York Times best seller. This is a big accomplishment for any writer, but it’s especially notable given that it was a self-published collection of poetry. Not exactly what most people think of when they think of bestsellers.
I don’t think it’s controversial to say that most people don’t read poetry anymore. Even other writers I’ve spoken with have told me they don’t like poetry, a couple have even told me they don’t “get” poetry. It’s not something the average person seems to read, outside of school assignments. I have yet to meet someone who enjoys reading poetry who doesn’t also write it.
As far as I can see, most people see poetry, classics aside, as falling into one of two categories.
1. High-brow and difficult to understand academic exercises.
2. Things that pretentious teenagers scribble in their notebooks.
Obviously, this is a sweeping generalization. However, it can’t be argued that the popularity of poetry is in decline. The Washington Post reported in 2015 that the number of people in America who read poetry has dropped by more than 10% since 1992. Given that only 17% of Americans were reading poetry in ’92, it’s easy to say that poetry is on its deathbed.
That said, the last thing I want to do here is try to pronounce poetry dead like so many other thinkpieces. Poetry may be very unpopular at the moment, but it’s unlikely it’s going to “die” altogether. People will always write and read poetry, even if it just remains a niche. The only way poetry is really going to die is if the written word somehow dies. Of course the question is not if poetry is dead, it’s whether it can it can break back into the mainstream. The success of poets like Rupi Kaur and, to a lesser extent, Melissa Broder, seems to show it is possible.
It’s very possible that the trend of the decline of people reading poetry will reverse. It’s very possible that a decade or two from now, poetry books will be more popular than novels. It’s unlikely, but it’s possible. In the short term, however, I feel safe in saying the success of someone like Kaur is a fluke. Not to downplay her ability as a writer or her work ethic, but the success of her first book is likely the result of luck as much as it is the merit and relatability of her poetry, if not more so. This is true of most things that get popular through the internet. I don’t think anyone who writes and publishes poetry should be holding their breath that they’ll be the next Kaur and shoot to the top of the Amazon bestseller list.
It’s hard enough to get paid to write, let alone when you write something as niche as poetry. So how do ensure that poets still make money off their work? Really, the only thing readers can do is buy the books of poets they enjoy. It’s not up to readers though, it really comes down to poets selling themselves.
Literary journals are one way poets can get paid for their work, the problem is that it can be difficult to find one that actually pays. In fact, there seems to be more and more journals that require the authors to pay to even have their work read. This is a trend that needs to die and I would encourage any writer to avoid any journal or website that has a submission fee.
In my own experience, I’ve sold more copies of my own collection in person than I have over the internet. I’ve done this by going to open mics around my city with copies and reading from it. Of course, I’m not going to break into the mainstream anytime soon. It’s not a goal of mine and it’s likely not on most poets’ minds either. I didn’t start writing poetry with the hope of getting rich and famous off of it and I’m sure all but a delusional few other poets didn’t as well.
People who write poetry may not like it, but it’s a small niche and will likely remain that way for a long time. It’s up to poets to write work worth reading and to make people want to read it. There will still be a very successful few. Most writers of horror will not sell the number of books Stephen King has and even fewer poets will ever sell the number of books Rupi Kaur has.