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A 'renaissance' is upon us: Interest in poetry on the rise after year of pandemic, chaos

Morgan Hines, USA TODAY
·7 min read
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Poetry is having a moment — not that the art form hasn't resonated through the centuries with work from greats including William Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes and others.

But now, a year after the COVID-19 pandemic began skulking its way into every corner of the nation during a tumultuous election year and a racial reckoning in the wake of George Floyd's death, a younger generation of poets including Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, and Rupi Kaur, author of several best-sellers, is finding its place among the ranks of poetry greats.

And they may not be the only young writers – or new writers – to do so, according to experts.

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A 'poetry surge' isn't new, but a 'renaissance' could be coming

Joy Harjo, who was recently appointed to her third yearlong term as Poet Laureate of the United States, said that while she believes that a "poetry surge" has been ongoing over the last four years, our current moment may bring about a renaissance.

"What often follows periods of decay and destruction and chaos is rebuilding and renaissance – periods of fresh invention in thought, in art," Harjo told USA TODAY, noting it may take some time to fully form.

"That's what often emerges from the ruins. You see little plants like after a fire. ... coming up from the char."

Kaur, who released her third collection of poetry, "Home Body," in November, told USA TODAY that she is looking forward to the poetry that is likely to come.

"I think that during times like this, artists and thinkers and makers get to work," she said. "Creating is a form of processing and reflecting. I think we're going to be seeing so much coming out and more artists releasing books of poetry."

The cancellation of the events that would be ongoing had COVID-19 not slowed the globe's social pace has allowed Kaur to experience a stillness – that many others are experiencing, too – which has given her the space to create, or as Harjo puts it, to "go inward."

Just as some people speculated there could be a post-pandemic baby boom, Harjo said she believes a poetry boom could be possible.

Reader interest is on the rise, too

But it's not only poetry production that's on the rise; interest in the art form on the whole is up, too.

"Traffic to Poets.org is now up 25% from March 1, 2020, to today compared to last year in this time frame," Jennifer Benka, the president and executive director of the Academy of American Poets, told USA TODAY on Jan. 25.

Poets.org, Benka said, is one of the "most visited" poetry websites.

But why the rapid rise in interest that seems to be continuing? Poetry experts say that the pandemic, along with the social unrest the country has been experiencing, could have something to do with it.

"We've been reminded during this time that poetry is an art form that people turn to in times of crisis for comfort and courage," Benka said.

Kaur said that a rise in interest in the art form – both in terms of writing and reading – makes sense. Poetry, she explained, is a very human form of engagement.

"We all write poetry as kids. The same way we drew things, we were all writing poems," Kaur said. "I think that's quite interesting that we did that as children because it shows just how innate poetry is to us as a species and it is one of the oldest crafts."

Beyond comfort, poetry can provide an awareness of ourselves, our environment and our society, Harjo said, calling it a "fierce mirror." That kind of reflection though, may be unfamiliar to many.

"Poets are usually a little – like any artists – their awareness usually runs a little ahead of the population at large," she said.

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Gorman's original poem "The Hill We Climb" that she delivered at President Joe Biden's inauguration pieced together a picture of a broken nation laced with references to current events, history and popular culture.

"We've braved the belly of the beast, we've learned that quiet isn't always peace," the poem reads. "And the norms and notions of what just is isn't always justice. And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it, somehow we do it. Somehow we've weathered and witnessed a nation that isn't broken, but simply unfinished."

She called for healing and unity, alluding to the riots that took place on Jan. 6 as a pro-Trump rally turned violent, with participants storming the U.S. Capitol.

Within hours of delivering her poem on Jan. 20, the 22-year-old went viral, according to Newsweek. She gained more than 2 million Instagram followers in a day, Buzzfeed reported.

And her success is only beginning.

Gorman's style at the inauguration – a bright yellow Prada coat, a red velvet headband that's already sold out and jewelry gifted to her by Oprah – caught the eyes of many. IMG Models, which represents the likes of Gisele Bündchen, Gigi Hadid, Kate Moss and Chrissy Teigen, announced that Gorman would be joining their lineup.

Plus, she has three works scheduled to be published this year: the printed copy of her Inauguration Day poem, out March 30, as well as a children's book titled "Change Sings: A Children's Anthem" and the poetry collection "The Hill We Climb and Other Poems," both due Sept. 21.

All three have already become Amazon best sellers, even though they won't be released for several more months.

Kaur had similar success, beginning with self-publishing even after being told she would fail if she tried to break into the poetry world in that way – that the "literary gatekeepers" wouldn't accept her.

Instead, she soared. All three of her books have landed on USA TODAY's best-seller list, and she has amassed more than 4 million followers on Instagram, the platform on which she often posts her work.

Poetry and social media influence

Social media influencers and celebrities – who are likely to have a wide audience already – have taken to publishing poetry as well.

Take Orion Carloto, for example. In the beginning, the writer and influencer used platforms including Tumblr to share her poetry and build an audience before landing a book deal with Andrews McMeel Publishing for her most recent book, "Film for Her," released in November. Carloto has 740,000 followers on Instagram and over 400,000 on Twitter.

On the celebrity side, Grammy-nominated musician Halsey, who published "I Would Leave Me If I Could.: A Collection of Poetry" in November, quickly had success as her book became a USA TODAY best-seller. And "Young and Beautiful" singer Lana Del Rey, whose debut poetry book "Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass" published in September, also became a USA TODAY bestselling poet.

Lili Reinhart, star of "Riverdale," writes poetry and is a USA TODAY best-seller, too. The 24-year-old released "Swimming Lessons," a book of poetry, last year. She sometimes shares some of her written work on Instagram too.

Is poetry likely to stay trendy?

"Poetry used to be at the back of bookstores," Kaur said. "There used to be a dinky little poetry shelf. And nobody really ever ventured back there."

But now, poetry is often featured at the front of bookstores. Whether that shelf placement will be permanent is a question Kaur has faced since 2015, she said.

But years later, new poets are emerging, being published and gaining popularity.

"I don't think it's a fad," Kaur said. "It's always been a serious contender and a genre and it is here to stay as we sort of step closer and back to who we are as human beings."

Harjo, who's set to release new spoken word album "I Pray For My Enemies" March 5, seemed to agree.

"I would venture poets are always going to be poets and poets will always be writing," she said, noting that it's always exciting to see younger poets break through.

"Once people understand the usefulness of poetry and how it has been helpful to move (forward) – sort of like a poem is a stepping stone through a mud trough – that you see that poetry can be useful."

Contributing: Hannah Yasharoff

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Could a poetry 'renaissance' be coming in the wake of the pandemic?