The HyperTexts

Poetry: The State of the Art
(with a Little Horn Tootin')

by Michael R. Burch

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. Well, we've actually had a lot more 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. There's no telling how many times those poems have been viewed elsewhere. But in any case, ten million page views 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 have translated myself and published in multiple versions. And I think 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 I had been able to find contained glaring errors. So I took the time to key the poem in by hand and 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, 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. Even if not, it's nice to see three very worthy poems getting some much-deserved recognition.

What is the current "state of the art"? I think it's actually quite healthy, despite all the gloom and doom I've heard since I started writing poetry seriously, over 40 years ago. A young Canadian poet, Rupi Kaur, has sold millions of books recently. Yes, poetry books! 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 readers ...

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 beliefs.

Lycos was the major search engine of its day, a precursor to Google. And when 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.

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 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 types of 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 odd 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 poems. In addition to the three poems mentioned above: "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 ever experience recognition, revivals or renaissances, I may claim an iota of credit, if only for recognizing their excellence. If all or most of them end up being acclaimed, I may then claim to have been a literary critic of some note. Or at least a good reader.

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

(*) 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.

The HyperTexts