Want to Know The State of American Poetry? Ask Your Teenager.

If you believe some of the dialogue about American poetry today (yes, the latest polemics from a certain writer at The Huffington Post included), you might think verse is on its deathbed, that it’s boring, that there’s too much being written, that there’s too little being written, or that no one reads any of it no matter how much is being written.

To the naysayers and the jeremiahs willing to pack poetry in English off to the shed with the velocipede and Depression glass, I give you Ellen Hopkins’s Fallout, which debuted just today, and is sales ranked, at of the time of my writing this blog post, #80–of all books–at Amazon.com.

Ellen Hopkins verse novels (Crank, Glass, Identical, Ticks, Burned, and Impulse precede her new release) are wildly popular, and have repeatedly landed Hopkins in the New York Times bestsellers. Yes, I said “verse” and “bestseller” in the same sentence. Most of us who spend our lives writing poetry have been told many times that there’s no audience for what we do, and that verse is a primarily artistic exercise, and not a commercial one. But Hopkins’s poetry–love her craftsmanship or hate it–is just as gritty, dark, and innovative as anything published in the established poetry world. It’s also undeniably popular–something that can rarely be said of poetry in mass culture.

So who’s reading Hopkins’s work? Young people. Really. Ellen Hopkins writes poetry, in novel-length, plotted format, with a teenaged audience in mind. I’ll admit it; when I told my friend Sharon Mentyka about my idea for my own verse novel, Jacob Wrestling, about two disturbed teenagers, I was dubious when she pointed me toward Hopkins’s work. Would kids really read a novel in poems? I thought Sharon was living outside reality. I worked with teenagers, after all. I had a hard enough time getting them to read The House on Mango Street. Were they really going to read poetry?

But when I picked up Hopkins’s Crank, I found it tough to put down. True, her style of poetry wasn’t entirely to my taste, but I was more than impressed by the way she used poetic tension to create 537 pages worth of can’t-stop-reading moments. Her book spoke to me, and, more importantly, it spoke to a new generation of poetry readers.

Frankly, the academic pissing contest over the state of poetry today doesn’t bother me much; I realize now that there’s an audience–a young, eager audience–for poetry, and that this audience will outlive me and whatever I or my contemporaries produce. Yes, that audience has its own demands. It doesn’t want to hear our fraught confessionals, and doesn’t want to read a slew of ars poeticas. That audience wants to be presented with work that performs perhaps one of the most ancient functions of poetry: spinning the tragic tale. The novel in verse may seem on the surface like a new invention, but it hearkens back to our roots as Western culture. Perhaps while their elders are worried about the death of poetry, merits of the MFA degree, the legitimacy of flarf as a poetic school, and other fleeting concerns, our teenagers are looking back toward poetry for pity, for fear, for catharsis, and, maybe, for hope. And that gives me hope, not just as writer but as a lover of poetry.

4 Replies to “Want to Know The State of American Poetry? Ask Your Teenager.”

  1. And I *knew* you know I was crazy for suggesting her work! Glad to hear that you found something of value in it. I think that the topics Hopkins tackles, and what you’ve undertaken with Jacob WRestling, is also a big part of what’s speaking to that age group.

  2. Kelly, this sounds like a really interesting book – I’m going to go and find it for me, and my now college freshman, to read.
    My 18 year old has always enjoyed writing poetry as well as reading it (in some genres.) It’s interesting me that he feels it’s very accessible and a perfectly fine thing to do and doesn’t have any baggage about it being any more or less serious than one of his favorite novels.

  3. Sharon, it just surprised me so much that poetry would be such a big seller, and to young readers at that! We poets are used to hearing that poetry is a completely arcane art, doesn’t have an audience, is dead, blah, blah, blah. I’m so glad you tuned me in to the entire renaissance going on in the young adult world!

  4. Maggie, I’d love to hear your and your son’s impressions of the book! (It’s part of a trilogy, so you may want to start with the first: Crank.) I too find it fascinating that kids find poetry much more accessible than adults do. Perhaps they’re more open to art at that exploratory time in life. I hope our kids continue to read and value poetry in their adult lives as well–it’s heartening to think that we might be seeing a rebirth of interest in the arts!

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