Despite arguments to the contrary, poetry continues to thrive in NH

Special to the Sunday News |
July 08. 2016 8:52PM

Award-winning poet and instructor Timothy Steele delivers the keynote address at the 2016 Frost Farm Poetry Conference. 

A full house at the kickoff presentation and reading at the 2016 Frost Farm Poetry Conference. (Courtesy)

Every few years or so, the media world at large announces the death of poetry. Newsweek has written the obituary at least three times since 2003. Poetry is dead is a suggested search on Google. Last year The Washington Post went so far as to declare it not just dead, but "going extinct," complete with government data. And we all lament.

But then, Beyonce served the world up some lemonade with a side of searing feminist verse by writer Warsan Shire earlier this year. Rapper Kendrick Lamar spoke truth to power with his meter and flow in "To Pimp a Butterfly." And poet Maggie Smith offered up "Good Bones" when one man took up arms against defenseless club-goers in Orlando last month, a healing balm of a poem that went viral.

"The world right now can be an uncertain place," said New Hampshire poet Kyle Potvin. "And across the ages, people reach for poetry (in times of uncertainty); maybe it's because it speaks to the heart and not the head, or because there's things in life that are very difficult to explain and poetry helps us do that.

"When poetry is done well, it has a universal statement about life, or about what could be troubling someone in life and that could cover a lot of issues. You're looking for that universal message and that makes for enduring and powerful poetry.

According to NH Poet Laureate Alice Fogel, poetry is an antidote. Poetry is a response to a call. Poetry is a conversation. And it's only just getting started.

"I think it's the antidote to some of the ills that people are starting to be overwhelmed by," Fogel said. "We need to balance that. We need to recognize that there's a lot of mystery in our lives and a lot of emotion that we can't explain. And poetry gives us something that we can't get in a lot of other places. You can get it from other arts, but poetry is language-based, and we need a kind of antidote to the political language, or commercial or commerce-driven language. We need something we can respond to on a much more human and gut level."

The Post was right in that the government's numbers of poetry readers aren't looking so good for the medium. According to the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA), which is taken every few years as part of the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, between 1992 and 2012 the percentage of Americans who'd read a poem at least once in the past year went from 17 percent to 6.7 percent. The study also found that poetry suffered the steepest decline of readers of any literary genre.

That said, apparently no one in New Hampshire got that memo because in barns, bookstores and backrooms, poetry seems to be more popular here than ever.

"Poetry is thriving here in New Hampshire," Potvin said. "We've had U.S. poets laureate from New Hampshire, and you know you hear names like Maxine Kumin and Charles Simic, and Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall - all from New Hampshire.

"So is it the air, is it the mountains, is it the beauty of New Hampshire that inspires us, or is it just coincidence? I don't know, but it is just a place where poetry has always been appreciated. And I think maybe that's sometimes the inroad to a place. There are other places perhaps where poetry isn't thought of or it isn't top of mind, or it isn't celebrated, but in New Hampshire it certainly is."

According to poet and NH Poetry Society President Don Kimball, membership has gone up significantly over the past several years. Moreover, poetry slams, open mic nights, workshops, readings and events have started popping up all over the state in greater numbers, he said.

Even Fogel said she didn't realize how popular poetry was in the state until she started traveling around as part of her poet laureate duties.

"I'm just finding that people from all walks of life, all backgrounds, all age groups are really drawn to poetry and make it an active part of their lives," she said. "And I find that fewer people pull away when you talk about poetry than used to."

And Potvin said that just last year two new large-scale events were added to the always-growing roster of events. Last year saw the arrival of the NH Poetry Festival, which Potvin said exceeded expectations to the point that it inspired another one this year slated for Sept. 24. The Robert Frost Farm in Derry, whose mission it is to support the writing and reading of poetry, held its second annual poetry conference in June which drew people from 11 states and Canada. Furthermore, the farm hosts a regular reading series where poets and lovers of poetry meet to hear nationally-acclaimed poets read their work.

And it's not just in New Hampshire. Even if the numbers don't yet reflect it, people are coming back to poetry. And in many cases, Kimball and Potvin argue, the internet has helped make poetry more accessible to new readers who might not otherwise have been exposed. Anecdotally, the numbers seem to point to robust poetry communities around the internet. For example, a 2013 report by the Guardian found that, "More than 20,000 teenagers are writing poetry on the social reading website Wattpad, and over 100,000 are actively reading Wattpad's poems on both web and mobile, while on the young adult community writing site Movellas, there are 20 to 30 new poems uploaded a day, with the most popular read up to 15,000 times, receiving between 20 and 200 comments."
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