Where is the Audience for Poetry?
How Medium stats reveal reader preferences
Every writer in some form or fashion desires an audience for their work. Sure, there are those who say they don’t care about such things, those who pursue the craft of writing like some kind of introspective dialogue. There are those who claim it’s merely a personal journey, that they only write for their own pleasure. But I think, somewhere in the back of their mind, even these people secretly hope their work will be discovered and read by an audience other than themselves. The act of artistic creation is itself a request for engagement, a request for validation.
I believe art has an intrinsic value. This is why I protect its freedom in creative content from those who would seek to impose limitations on what art can be. I believe in order for art to be able to communicate anything to its audience, the artist must be free to explore the creative limitations of their own mind and perspective. Freedom of expression therefore remains sacrosanct in this age of cancel culture and the PC police. Having said that, making art is not as easy as it sometimes appears. And, although art by default has value in its creation, often that value is not reflected back to its creator.
I have been writing poetry and fiction for many years of my life. Writing for the platform Medium has been a recent endeavor, but it has afforded me some insights into audience engagement with the different types of writing I have attempted. Examining the stats of my various Medium article posts, I have begun to wonder to myself, where is the audience for poetry?
There is a definite disparity in the levels of engagement I have observed between posts of poetry, and posts of non-fiction. The difference is fairly consistent, and it is revealing. While poems can accumulate upwards of a couple hundred reads over time, my non-fiction posts tend to accumulate thousands, and at a much quicker pace. This happens even though both types of content have been about trending topics.
The obvious deduction to make here, is that poetry just isn’t something with mass market appeal. Or, poetry doesn’t connect as easily with its audience. Or, people just don’t like poetry in general. It’s interesting, because if you look at content platforms, social media and the like, the amount of people generating poetry content is simply staggering. It would appear as though we are in an era of poetry market saturation. It’s everywhere! With all these poets posting their work every day online, it makes one think they must also enjoy reading it. There’s an entire audience just ready for engagement.
But it isn’t so. It’s the opposite. Everyone is creating work, but few are reading it. It’s as if everyone is competing for an audience that is falsely perceived. How else can you explain the extreme lack of engagement with actual poetry on these platforms where poetry is one of the most popular things being published? Aside from Medium, I am also a member of multiple Facebook groups that have thousands of members. In those groups it is much the same as everywhere else. You will see countless posts shared there with little to no engagement, and then some random post that is offensive or provocative getting all the attention. It’s a bizarre phenomenon to behold. This also conjures an increased level of difficulty for quality content to rise to the surface. With so much content out there, circulating in an endless cesspool of the virtual reality void, it all starts to seem the same, and therefore becomes easier and easier to just ignore it.
The public perception of poetry has always been one of niche status. Regardless of the reasons, whether it’s the way it is taught in public education, its intrinsic connection to Shakespeare or other markedly difficult historic texts, or its ties to elitism, poetry has a troubled past and a troubled reputation. Because of this, the creative pursuit of poetry is something limited to a rather insular community. Poets write for other poets.
Poetry is mired in illusions of academia, a perceived difficulty in ease of understanding, and a barrier to mass appeal in its opacity of language. It is often viewed as pretentious, with caricatures of poets taking themselves super seriously: the cliched image of the black beret and the cigarette, the beat poet in a turtleneck reading from a leather-bound notebook at an open mic while the audience rolls its eyes and groans.
With all of these obstacles, is it no wonder that success as a poet comes with it an excessive perception of rarity. Successful poets are even considered more of a winning lottery ticket than successful writers in general. It’s an accepted given that if one identifies as a poet today, they’ve accepted a life of poor obscurity, just another piece of literary detritus floating in a flotsam and jetsam sea of mediocrity. The fortunate few who somehow break through the monotony and achieve a level of success in poetry are viewed as diamond-encrusted rock stars through some illusive veil of improbability. How did they do it? How are they speaking to enthralled audiences at readings? How are they selling thousands to millions of books? These people are unicorns who’ve been struck by magical lightning. They are gods among mortals.
As the landscape of literature has evolved, people have increasingly sought innovative ways to make themselves stand out from the crowd. Whether it’s Rupi Kaur posting bloody pictures of her period on Instagram to promote her visually poetic appetizers, or it’s people creating followings by becoming YouTube influencers, or it’s using other media platforms to create in-roads to promoting their books, the literary landscape is literally teeming with would-be best-sellers vying for your attention.
With all of this content being produced now, it begins to seem as though the intrinsic value of art is being lowered. We live in a time where Spotify and other streaming services pay musicians less than minimum wage for their songs. We live in the era of payment via platform exposure versus any actual compensation. We live in the era of the Amazon Kindle and the death of the brick and mortar store. This is the attention deficit disorder generation.
Everyone’s a creator, but no one’s a consumer. If everyone creating the content truly cared about the art they were trying to participate in, the craft of it, there would be more of a support network forming between the artists on these platforms where all this work is being shared. Instead, you just seem to have a whole lot of voices shouting over each other to see who can be the loudest. It just doesn’t work. Maybe life was better before the internet. Art certainly was.