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Who Reads Poetry?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


My title is meant to pose a real question. It's an old question, but it is worth asking why the anxiety betrayed by the question has been around for so long, and especially why it has spiked in recent years. The question expresses a worry that nobody reads much poetry, or that few people do, or that the right people don't at the right times or in the right ways. So it's a real question to which it's difficult to give a real answer, since the sane response to such anxiety tends to be either “You're right to worry, since nobody reads poetry these days” or “Don't worry; lots of people do. You just haven't noticed.” In her 2006 address as outgoing president of the MLA, Marjorie Perloff gave a little of both responses. “Out in the world beyond the academy, individual poets are warmly celebrated …,” Perloff told her audience (654). Don't worry, in other words. On the other hand, do worry, since that “beyond” means that those gathered—that is, literary critics, members of the MLA, all of us in that room or reading this journal—have not noticed such warm popular celebrations because we are the ones who don't read poetry these days or who don't read it in the right ways. “A specter is haunting the academy, the specter of literature,” Perloff warned us, turning worry into revolutionary foreboding (658). We sat back in our seats, reassured. Oh good, we thought, poetry is about to make a comeback.

Theories and Methodologies
Copyright © 2008 by The Modern Language Association of America

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