Poetry: The State of the Art
(with a Little Horn Tootin')
by Michael R. Burch
NOTE: After this article was originally published, the National Endowment for
the Arts announced that the number of poetry
readers in the United States had almost doubled over the last five years.
According to the NEA report: "The largest increase in poetry readership in the
past five years has come from young people ages 18–24 and African American,
Asian American, and other non-white readers." The Executive Director of
the Academy of American Poets, Jennifer Benka, confirmed the NEA's findings: "In
the past five years, we’ve had significant growth in readers coming to Poets.org
and subscribing to Poem-a-Day year over year." And, as the chart at the bottom
of this page reveals, The HyperTexts has experienced a readership boom
over the last six years. I hesitate to say "I told you so," but I do feel
vindicated. (Well, okay, truth be told, I'm gloating!)
The HyperTexts recently passed ten million page views, which
seems rather remarkable if poetry is a "dying" art, as has been widely
and repeatedly claimed.
We've actually had a lot more then ten million hits, since we only
started tracking them accurately in recent years. And
we still can't track the "external" views of poems we've published that have
gone viral. For instance, Sappho and Basho translations published by THT have been "borrowed" hundreds of times by other poetry
websites, blogs, Facebook and Pinterest pages, etc. So there's no telling how many times those
poems have been viewed elsewhere. But in any case, ten million is a
nice number to have "hit," however many more may have gone uncounted.
And there's more good news, because I was recently doing Google searches for
"the most popular poems of all time" and "the most read poems of all time" when
I had my breath "literally" taken away. Three somewhat obscure poems that I have
been touting for years had somehow soared into Google's top 50! The most obscure
of the three, "Wulf and Eadwacer," is an ancient Anglo-Saxon poem that I
translated myself and have published in multiple versions. And I believe THT can
definitely take a bit of credit for the rise of the second poem, "Tom O'Bedlam's
Song," because many years ago I realized there wasn't a single correct version
of the poem online. Every version that I had been able to find contained glaring
errors. So I took the time to key the poem in by hand, using a reliable source,
then published it on
multiple pages. The third poem, "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes, is one that I
have mentioned on a number of THT pages over the years, reminiscing about how my mother recited
it from memory to her enthralled children.
So I like to think THT has played a part in helping these fine poems find larger
audiences. But in any case, it's nice to see these very worthy poems getting some
Just recently, I stumbled upon a Google feature that ranks the most popular
authors for the last 20 years (1999-2018 at the time I wrote this article).
Three of the top four authors were poets: Maya Angelou, William Shakespeare and
Edgar Allan Poe. They ranked above Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and
Ernest Hemingway for the entire 20 year time frame. Other poets who ranked
highly included Robert Frost, Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson.
In the following rankings I have bolded the names of contemporary poets, by
which I mean poets who have written since the dawn of modernism, around 1900 to
1910. I have italicized the names of the early modernists, including the great
Romantic poets who started the modern trends in the first place. My purpose here
is to demonstrate that the much-lamented "death" of poetry never took place.
Rather, the last two centuries have been the most fertile in the long history of
A Google search for "most popular poet" turned up, in the following order:
William Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Walt
Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, William Butler Yeats,
William Wordsworth, Rumi, John Keats, Maya Angelou,
Langston Hughes, e. e. cummings, William Blake, Pablo
Neruda, T. S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Alfred Tennyson, John
Donne, Dante, Dylan Thomas, Percy Bysshe Shelley,
Ezra Pound, Lord Byron, Allen Ginsberg,
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Elizabeth Barrett Browning,
Shel Silverstein, Rudyard Kipling, Homer, Li
Bai, Charles Bukowski, Billy Collins,
Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy, Christina Rossetti, John
Milton, W. H. Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William
Carlos Williams, Rupi Kaur, Rabindranath
Tagore, Henry David Thoreau, Seamus Heaney,
Wallace Stevens, Petrarch, Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
Sara Teasdale, Carl Sandburg, Anne
Sexton and Robert Burns. By my count there are 8 classical
poets, 18 early modernists and 24 contemporary poets. Where is the "death" of
poetry to be found?
There are some notable omissions, including Sappho, Virgil, Geoffrey Chaucer,
Alexander Pope, Goethe, Alexander Pushkin, Robert Browning, Gerard Manley
Hopkins, Charles Baudelaire and Rainer Maria Rilke. But they did show up in a
Google search for "the best poets" at the time I was writing this.
There are omitted poets whom I would have selected: Basho, Sir Thomas Wyatt,
Edmund Spenser, Conrad Aiken, Louise Bogan, Hart Crane, Ernest Dowson, Robert
Herrick, A. E. Housman, Robinson Jeffers, Philip Larkin and Wilfred Owen.
Still, I think the current "state of the art" is actually quite
healthy, despite all the gloom and doom I've heard over the last 40-odd years. A young Canadian poet, Rupi Kaur, has sold
millions of books recently. Yes, poetry books! Other
poets are also selling books at rapid clips. Whether
that will continue, only time can tell. But book sales aside, I don't think the
venerable art was ever "dead" or "dying." If you have time to bear with me, I
will explain why, and how a small poetry journal managed to connect with so many
When I founded The HyperTexts around the year 1998—I forget exactly
when—I was under the impression that poetry had lost its readership, that very
few people other than poets were interested in poetry, and that I was probably
fighting a losing battle to have my own poems read in any meaningful numbers.
But of course poets are gluttons for punishment, so I plowed forward
nonetheless. Then something completely unexpected happened that changed my
Lycos was the major search engine of its day, a precursor to Google.
Lycos announced its most popular search terms for 1999, there was "poetry" at a
heady number eight, ahead of "wrestling," "football," "golf" and most of the
Internet sex kittens. By 2000, Lycos was reporting 228,400 poetry websites. It
turned out that poetry wasn't "dying" after all. Far from it, poetry
was alive and apparently thriving and growing online.
Human beings often believe things that aren't true. The common wisdom is often
dead wrong. The earth isn't flat. Tomatoes aren't poisonous. God is not on his
throne, dispensing justice to the nations. And poetry has not been "rejected" by
the masses. Now, it may very well be that most readers found little or nothing to
like in modern poetry books and literary journals, and that may—quite rationally—explain declines in sales. But it seems readers were rejecting certain
poetry, while seeking out others, since searches are what search engines respond
to and measure.
Being a computer science major, a software developer, and the owner and manager
of a computer software company, I decided to take advantage of my new-found
knowledge. I spent time figuring out how to make search engines like Lycos and
Google "understand" that the poetry I published would be more attractive and
relevant to poetry searchers than the types of poetry they didn't care for. This
was mostly a matter—I believe—of having good taste in
poetry, of putting the focus on the best poems rather than the "flavor of the
month," and of avoiding things that had caused readers to stop buying poetry
books, such as tediousness, pretension and obscurity.
Unfortunately, in any era most of the poetry produced will be lackluster. This
isn't a malady that suddenly developed in our day. I grokked that small journals
that demanded unpublished poetry were applying a Mafia-like "kiss of death" to
the poems they published. Once a poem had been published—to be read by almost
no one—it was dead to all the other journals. So I chose to break from the
crowd and accept previously published poems. (I also had the rebellious notion that no
reader has ever been harmed by reading a good poem twice.)
I chose to feature neglected poems that struck me as far superior to the madding
crowd of mediocre ones. In addition to the three poems mentioned above, some of
the poems I gave special attention include: "Bread
and Music" by Conrad Aiken, "Servitude" by Anne Reeve Aldrich, "How Long the
Night" by Anonymous, "His Confession" by the Archpoet, "After the Persian" and
"Song for the Last Act" by Louis Bogan, "For Her Surgery" by Jack Butler, "After
the Rain" by Jared Carter, "Under the Willow Tree" by Thomas Chatterton, "A
Song" and "Far Above the Shaken Trees" by Digby Dolben, "Friday" by Ann
Drysdale, "Sweet Rose of Virtue" by William Dunbar, "Snow" and "Miscarried" by
Rhina P. Espaillat, "Release" by R. S. Gwynn, "I Have a Crush on the Devil" by
Rose Kelleher, "First Confession" by X. J. Kennedy, "Du" by Janet Kenny, "Piano"
by D. H. Lawrence, "Lovemaker" by Robert Mezey, "Come Lord and Lift" and "Time
in Eternity" by Tom Merrill, "Depths" and "In the Dark Season" by Richard Moore,
"Sometimes Mysteriously" by Luis Omar Salinas, "The Dark Side of the Deity" by
Joe M. Ruggier, "Ghost Ship" by A. E. Stallings, "Sea Fevers" by Agnes Wathall,
"Resemblances" by Gail White, "The Death of a Toad" by Richard Wilbur, and
"Requiescat" by Oscar Wilde.
If any of these exceptional poems experience recognition, revivals or
renaissances, I may claim an iota of credit, if only for recognizing their
excellence and having the sense to publish them.
But regardless of what happens to me personally, or to THT, it seems the state
of art is healthy, and continues to improve.
The HyperTexts: Cumulative
Page Views by Year
2004 — 23,102 (*)
2005 — 39,767 (*)
2006 — 66,266 (*)
2007 — 93,271 (*)
2008 — 146,675 (*)
2009 — 200,116 (*)
2010 — 243,001
2011 — 265,805
2012 — 279,554
2013 — 1,714,000
2014 — 3,466,000
2015 — 5,504,000
2016 — 7,453,000
2017 — 10,356,000
2018 — 10,960,000 after five months
(*) Before 2004, we did not track page views at all. From 2004-2009 we used a
page counter that only tracked "hits" on THT's main page. Around 2010 we started
adding code snippets to our pages that allowed us to track all page views, but
this was a cumbersome manual process that took a lot of time and effort.
Unfortunately, I don't remember when the process was completed, but I would
guess around 2013, when our page views nearly sextupled. That would suggest that
we had a lot more page views in prior years, which we simply weren't able to
measure. But in any case, since 2013 THT has averaged around two million page
views per year.