Poetry in America: Overview

The Poetry Foundation releases the first scientific study of American attitudes toward poetry.

The Poetry Foundation undertook the Poetry in America study in the belief that "great poets need great audiences," to quote Walt Whitman. Our objectives were threefold. We wanted first to replace anecdotal information with hard, practical facts about what Billy Collins called "the poor little match girl of the arts." Further, we hoped to reveal opportunities and areas where the Foundation, or any other organization devoted to poetry, might develop programs to broaden and deepen the audience. And finally, we hoped to set benchmarks against which the effectiveness of our work could be measured over time.

The Foundation engaged the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, one of the most experienced and highly regarded academic research firms in the country. We weren't interested in simply compiling numbers, but rather in understanding what they mean. Poetry in America sought to reveal, for example, who reads poetry and why. Where do they find it? How does it benefit them? In keeping with the Foundation's mission to invigorate poetry's presence in our culture, the study focused on the potential audience as well as the existing audience. Are there factors that make one person a lifelong reader of poetry and the next person indifferent to it? What are the barriers that keep people from reading poetry, and how can they be eliminated?

The extensive findings of the report range from the familiar to the completely novel. It is no surprise, for example, that well-educated women and African Americans constitute a large part of poetry's readership. More surprising, on the other hand, is the degree to which people buy books of poetry as gifts but don't read it themselves. Readers and non-readers alike strongly believe that poetry offers personal and social benefits. Although poetry is sometimes thought of as a marginal art, the people who read it are more connected with life and culture than those who do not. They socialize with family and friends and volunteer in their communities more frequently than do non-readers, and they participate in leisure activities—listening to music, exercising, and attending cultural events—at significantly higher rates.

Poetry in America offers broad support for several Foundation initiatives under way. According to the report, the Internet holds great potential as a delivery system for poetry. Visitors to will discover an extensive resource with lively features for both newcomers and seasoned readers. Many people hear and read poetry at ceremonies, according to the report. The Web site includes the "Poetry Tool," which is designed to help people find poems for births, weddings, funerals, and other momentous occasions. It also helps readers find poems that offer insight into their lives—a major benefit of poetry, according to the study. also makes it easy to share poetry via email—a practice that is surprisingly common among non-readers as well as readers.

Poetry in America reveals that students who don't merely read poetry, but also memorize, recite, and write it, are more likely to read it later in life. The finding endorses the Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest and other programs that extend poetry instruction at all levels. Poetry in America affirms that early childhood experiences with a wide variety of poetry—not just nursery rhymes and Dr. Seuss—play an important role in developing a lifelong interest in poetry.

Of course, the report also gives strong support to many fine programs that have long been assets to the poetry community at large. The Foundation invited representatives from publishing, teaching, libraries, and outreach organizations to help design the Poetry in America survey. The Foundation hopes that the report and the extensive data collected will benefit the entire poetry community in assessing projects, developing opportunities, and securing funding.

Media Contact: Anne Halsey (312) 799.8016

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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