Poetry to the People!

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During the years I and my research team were collecting the 15,000+ pieces of student writing that went into the Stanford Study of Writing, we had a running joke that the most “closeted” group on campus were poets. Because as the texts rolled in, we found poetry coming from everywhere: engineers, pre-med students, computer scientists, athletes—poetry, poetry, poetry. Now some of it was pretty bad poetry, but it was ubiquitous in our study, and heartfelt. In fact, I had asked students to submit all the writing they wanted to—not just that prepared for a class—without much thought. But that “other” writing turned out to be the most interesting to us as researchers, as it showed us what our students cared about when they weren’t working on assigned writing tasks. And one thing they cared about was poetry.

So I was not surprised when I read a few weeks ago about “Instapoets” on the web. If you didn’t see this piece in the New York Times, check out Alexandra Alter’s “Web Poets’ Society: New Breed Succeeds in Taking Verse Viral.” The article opens with a brief profile of web poet Tyler Knott Gregson:

Seven years ago, Mr. Gregson, 34, was scraping by as a freelance copywriter, churning out descriptions of exercise equipment, hair products and medical imaging devices. Now, thanks to his 560,000 Instagram and Tumblr followers, he has become the literary equivalent of a unicorn: a best-selling celebrity poet.

Gregson’s first book, Chasers of the Light, has sold well over 100,000 copies, a figure the author of the essay compares to Louise Gluck’s Faithful and Virtuous Night. Gluck’s book, which won the National Book Award for Poetry last year, has sold only 20,000 copies. And Gregson’s latest book, All the Words are Yours, had an opening print run of 100,000 and, at the time I write this, is number 3 on Nielsen’s top 10 bestselling poetry titles.

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One of Gregson’s daily haikus from his Instagram feed: http://www.instagram.com/tylerknott/

Gregson is just one of many young authors who are publishing their poetry on the web: Alter cites numerous examples from around the globe to support her claim that “Instapoets” are everywhere. And while the Instapoets are not winning major literary awards (yet), they do suggest that the American habit of turning away from poetry may be changing: the 440,000 subscribers to YouTube’s Button Poetry channel suggests that readers/listeners are responding to poetry in powerfully positive ways. In this regard, the web has opened up a space for creativity that had been pretty much sealed off to all but a few poets able to publish their work through traditional means. This opening up of publication to ordinary folks is one of the hallmarks of the democratizing potential of the web, and one that seems to be working for poets.

Teachers of writing have argued for the creative potential of all writing and have been at the forefront of keeping a focus on creativity even in the face of the national craze for standardized testing. Of course the Common Core puts emphasis on creativity—and even China seems to have realized that its approach to rote learning has left its students unable to compete in the creative arena, leading its education policymakers to introduce goals for “creativity” into their national curricula. In this country, we see “creative writing” courses in greater demand than ever—and an outpouring of creativity in both poetry and other forms of discourse on the Internet.

Certainly this outpouring of poetry online offers great opportunities for our classrooms and students, both in terms of reading the work of others and of getting their own work out there for others to share. I’m hoping to do a small informal survey of the first-year writing classes at Stanford, asking how many students in them are putting their poetry online. I expect I’ll find a number of these students to be Instapoets and I hope that I can read and learn from what they are doing.

Poetry to the People!!

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.