The HyperTexts

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

by Michael R. Burch

NOTE: After this article was originally published, the National Endowment for the Arts announced that the number of poetry readers in the United States had almost doubled over the last five years. According to the NEA report: "The largest increase in poetry readership in the past five years has come from young people ages 18–24 and African American, Asian American, and other non-white readers." The Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets, Jennifer Benka, confirmed the NEA's findings: "In the past five years, we’ve had significant growth in readers coming to and subscribing to Poem-a-Day year over year." And, as the chart at the bottom of this page reveals, The HyperTexts has experienced a readership boom over the last six years. I hesitate to say "I told you so," but I do feel vindicated. (Well, okay, truth be told, I'm gloating!)

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. We've actually had a lot more then ten million 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. So there's no telling how many times those poems have been viewed elsewhere. But in any case, ten million 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 translated myself and have published in multiple versions. And I believe 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 that I had been able to find contained glaring errors. So I took the time to key the poem in by hand, using a reliable source, then 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 over the years, 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. But in any case, it's nice to see these very worthy poems getting some much-deserved recognition.

Just recently, I stumbled upon a Google feature that ranks the most popular authors for the last 20 years (1999-2018 at the time I wrote this article). Three of the top four authors were poets: Maya Angelou, William Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe. They ranked above Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway for the entire 20 year time frame. Other poets who ranked highly included Robert Frost, Langston Hughes and Emily Dickinson.

In the following rankings I have bolded the names of contemporary poets, by which I mean poets who have written since the dawn of modernism, around 1900 to 1910. I have italicized the names of the early modernists, including the great Romantic poets who started the modern trends in the first place. My purpose here is to demonstrate that the much-lamented "death" of poetry never took place. Rather, the last two centuries have been the most fertile in the long history of English poetry.

A Google search for "most popular poet" turned up, in the following order: William Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, William Butler Yeats, William Wordsworth, Rumi, John Keats, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, e. e. cummings, William Blake, Pablo Neruda, T. S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Alfred Tennyson, John Donne, Dante, Dylan Thomas, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ezra Pound, Lord Byron, Allen Ginsberg, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Shel Silverstein, Rudyard Kipling, Homer, Li Bai, Charles Bukowski, Billy Collins, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Hardy, Christina Rossetti, John Milton, W. H. Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Carlos Williams, Rupi Kaur, Rabindranath Tagore, Henry David Thoreau, Seamus Heaney, Wallace Stevens, Petrarch, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sara Teasdale, Carl Sandburg, Anne Sexton and Robert Burns. By my count there are 8 classical poets, 18 early modernists and 24 contemporary poets. Where is the "death" of poetry to be found?

There are some notable omissions, including Sappho, Virgil, Geoffrey Chaucer, Alexander Pope, Goethe, Alexander Pushkin, Robert Browning, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Charles Baudelaire and Rainer Maria Rilke. But they did show up in a Google search for "the best poets" at the time I was writing this.

There are omitted poets whom I would have selected: Basho, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Edmund Spenser, Conrad Aiken, Louise Bogan, Hart Crane, Ernest Dowson, Robert Herrick, A. E. Housman, Robinson Jeffers, Philip Larkin and Wilfred Owen.

Still, I think the current "state of the art" is actually quite healthy, despite all the gloom and doom I've heard over the last 40-odd years. A young Canadian poet, Rupi Kaur, has sold millions of books recently. Yes, poetry books! Other poets are also selling books at rapid clips. 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 errant beliefs.

Lycos was the major search engine of its day, a precursor to Google. Lo-and-behold, 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. Far from it, poetry was alive and apparently thriving and growing online.

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 very well be that most readers found little or nothing to like in modern poetry books and literary journals, and that mayquite rationallyexplain 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 rebellious 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 ones. In addition to the three poems mentioned above, some of the poems I gave special attention include: "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 experience recognition, revivals or renaissances, I may claim an iota of credit, if only for recognizing their excellence and having the sense to publish them.

But regardless of what happens to me personally, or to THT, it seems the state of art is healthy, and continues to improve. 

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
2018 — 10,960,000 after five months

(*) 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