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How lockdowns and social media made poetry cool again

Social media has transformed the way Millennials and Generation Z discover, consume and write poetry. Thanks to platforms like YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, poetry is now more accessible and ubiquitous than ever, and it’s driving a resurgence in poetry’s popularity, breaking down barriers to entry for young poets and changing the form of art itself.

“It’s very shareable,” says Jennifer Benka, president of the Academy of American Poets. “It’s a very accessible art form that has absolutely been aided by the increasing availability of digital devices, technology and social media.”

Why we wrote this

As people around the world were bound by pandemic lockdowns, their thoughts and emotions were released online. Social media poetry has invited new voices to connect with new audiences, breathing new life into the art form.

Visits to the free poetry website poets.com, run by the Academy of American Poets, increased 30% in 2020 at the start of the pandemic, and traffic remains high, Benka says.

Donovan Beck found his audience online. At 22 and still a student at California State University, Northridge, Mr. Beck has nearly 440,000 followers on TikTok and an additional 28,000 followers on Instagram.

In an age where endless streams of content compete for attention, “we don’t have time to do [a] super big metaphor that needs to be dissected to be understood,” Beck says. “So we just say what we have to say, and the audience tunes in to that.”

WORCESTER, MASS.

Adael Mejia enters the lobby of the hotel where he will perform that evening wearing a multicolored overcoat made of recycled clothing that reaches almost to his ankles and a ski mask.

He’s a poet. But he is also a revolutionary.

Mr Mejiathe 19-year-old Poet Laureate from Worcester, Massachusetts, is helping lead an artistic revival, or revolution, as he puts it, in his post-industrial hometown of 200,000 people.

Why we wrote this

As people around the world were bound by pandemic lockdowns, their thoughts and emotions were released online. Social media poetry has invited new voices to connect with new audiences, breathing new life into the art form.

It also represents another revolution – one that is taking place in the world of poetry. The art form that young people often associate with dry high school lessons about Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost is becoming more direct and diverse, both in its creators and its influences, and it is, perhaps most salient, mostly shared and shaped by social media.

“If it weren’t for social media — if it wasn’t for being able to post me and people being able to discover me through their phones — I would still be playing with my mom,” Mr. Mejia.

Social media has transformed the way Millennials and Generation Z discover, consume and write poetry. Thanks to platforms like YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, poetry is now more accessible and ubiquitous than ever, and it’s driving a resurgence in poetry’s popularity, breaking down barriers to entry for young poets and changing the form of art itself.

“It’s very shareable,” says Jennifer Benka, president of the Academy of American Poets. “It’s a very accessible art form that has absolutely been aided by the increasing availability of digital devices, technology and social media.”

Twelve percent of American adults said in a National Endowment for the Arts survey that they had read poetry in 2017, the last time the survey was conducted. This was a 5 point increase from 2012, when poetry readership hit a low of around 7%.

The increase was even more marked among young people aged 18 to 24, having more than doubled from 8.2% to 17.5% between 2012 and 2017.

There is evidence that the trend has continued during the pandemic.

Free Poetry Site Tours poets.orgmaintained by the Academy of American Poets, grew 30% in 2020 at the start of the pandemic, and traffic remains high, Benka says.

“It has been, especially the first year of the pandemic, a time of overwhelming grief, loss and loneliness, and a lot of people wanted to make sense of what was happening in the world,” she says.

Then came Amanda Gorman’s stunning performance at the 2021 inauguration of President Joe Biden. Eventbrite reported that the number of poetry events registered on the online invitation site jumped 24% in the weeks following the inaugural performance. That figure has increased a further 26% over the past year, an Eventbrite spokeswoman told the Monitor.

Social media, among other factors, has revived poetry so much that Ms. Benka describes the present moment as “the pinnacle of American poetry.”

Chris Young/The Canadian Press/AP/File

Rupi Kaur recites a poem during We Day in Toronto, September 19, 2019. Ms. Kaur is an “Instapoet” who has successfully posted her prose on social media. She has 4.5 million followers on Instagram and her latest book of poems, titled “Home Body”, is a bestseller.

Poetry gained attention on social media in 2013 and 2014 with the success of Indian Canadian artist Rupi Kaur. Ms. Kaur, who was then in her early twenties, posted short poems accompanied by illustrations on her Instagram account, which racked up millions of likes. In 2014, an established publisher published a collection of her poems, “Milk and Honey”, which sold over 2.5 million copies.

Donovan Beck also found its audience online.

At 22 and still a student at California State University, Northridge, Mr. Beck has nearly 440,000 followers on TikTok and an additional 28,000 followers on Instagram.

His poetry, which he performs while looking straight into the camera in warm lighting, focuses on mental health, loneliness and hope, often offering affirmation and optimism.

Mr. Beck came to this art form in high school, when he discovered poets like Andrea Gibson and Rudy Francisco on YouTube and started writing his own. During the pandemic, a friend convinced him to start playing on TikTok, and his account took off.

“I feel like TikTok opens doors for people to watch,” says Laryssa Lopes, a senior at Southeastern Vocational Technical High School in South Easton, Massachusetts. Since a class project sparked her interest in poetry last year, she’s been watching more and more poetry videos on the platform.

Sometimes she even searches for a poet she sees on TikTok or watches longer performances on YouTube, which she would never do without social media. “It opens your eyes. »

While social media has dramatically increased readers’ access to established poets, it has also broken down barriers for aspiring ones.

“There’s a little red button on TikTok and a little red button on Instagram to save your track and go share it. And if that’s the only barrier stopping you, that’s fine,” Beck says.

Social media allows poets to circumvent traditional institutions of control like publishing houses and literary magazines, Beck says, “allowing black writers and writers from minority groups to share their stories in ways that don’t would never have been possible”.

The low barrier to publishing, combined with the publishing settings on each platform, is changing the form of poetry, with new voices sharing candid prose. Black and immigrant poets in particular, whose work might not have been heard without social media, grapple with difficult questions like identity and justice through stanzas and verse.

That’s what draws readers like Tricia Barros, another Southeastern senior.

“I have always thought of [poetry] so boring,” she said. Then her teacher showed them online videos of slam poets talking about being black, like her, and she realized that poetry was anything but boring. Now she writes her own.

But platforms that welcome new audiences can also invite a deluge of criticism. Much of the poetry that comes from social media is short and simple. Poets like Madame Kaur were ridiculed for plain verse.

“People have debates about – is it poetry? Isn’t that poetry? says poet Jingming “Mimi” Yu, a student at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln – and Nebraska’s first Young Poet Laureate. “Social media has made art much more accessible than before and has kind of forced us to redefine what a poem is.”

Growing up mostly on Instagram and TikTok where endless streams of content compete for attention, “we don’t have time to do [a] super big metaphor that needs to be dissected to be understood,” Beck says. “So we just say what we have to say, and the audience tunes in to that.”

Mr. Mejia certainly knows how to connect with an audience. One Friday night this spring, he performed at a gala for an arts center in Worcester. His performance is intense, beginning with him walking around the stage and ending with him in a chair with his arms outstretched.

The poem he recites is about the struggles and challenges of a young artist who rises from homelessness to the heights of glory.

Although this performance is in person, just in the shadows of the stage, a man is wielding a smartphone. Mr. Mejia’s poetry was broadcast live.



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