Diary of a Poet

Poetry: the Sneak Attack

As a poet and writer, I’m always trying to figure out ways to encourage people to read poetry. With so many distractions, how do we create opportunities for poetry to reach more people? Put another way, how do we get more people to like poetry?

According to a 2006 study funded by the Poetry Foundation and the National Organization for Research at the University of Chicago, the sneak attack is the best approach when attempting to reach people who say they don’t read poetry.* Non-readers of poetry were more likely to read or listen to a poem when they were exposed to one in unexpected places. These unexpected places include billboards, public transportation, events, and the newspaper. 

I wonder if this willingness to tolerate a poem is due the nature of the encounter. If a person doesn’t like poetry, and knows she’ll have to sit through one at an upcoming event, she’s probably already prepared to tune out. But if she happens to glance up while driving on the freeway and pass a poem in giant letters on a billboard or see one while riding the subway, the surprise might just startle her into a new appreciation.

When I was Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, CA, I decided that the most important part of my job was to increase those chance encounters with poetry. I tried my best to put poems in places where people were forced to stand or sit for undetermined lengths of time: the bank, grocery store, cleaners, coffee shop, hardware store, dentist’s office, etc. 

My hairdresser hung a short poem by Hafiz on a wall in her salon, framed like a painting. She told me that people would look at it, first thinking it was a picture, and then, puzzled, ask her about it. I also organized a “Poem in Your Pocket” day, where volunteers handed out poems to unsuspecting members of our town. The reactions were varied—some people seemed delighted, some confused, and a few shrank back in horror. I also conducted holiday-themed poetry events (Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s Day), which were surprisingly well-received.

After three years of being the town’s self-appointed poetry sniper, I was worn out, happy to retreat back into my previous persona as a private person. But every once in a while, I’d come across a tattered poem printed on mint-green cardstock, taped to a cash register in a local business. And I would smile a secret smile of satisfaction. 

I don’t know how many random acts of poetry it takes to change the mind of someone whose opinion of the art ranges from indifferent to hostile. If these “random acts” occur too frequently, of course, they lose their impact. But our extreme level of distraction these days leads me to believe that poetry saturation is pretty unlikely. So I continue to look for ways to raise awareness of the joys of poetry.

*I wrote about this study in the July 7, 2019 article for “The Reading Life,” “Who Reads Poetry? Survey Results.”

Categories: Diary of a Poet

2 replies »

  1. Love these posts so much…thank you for all you do xx


    Inspiration does exist but it must find you working. ~ Pablo Picasso


  2. I love all your ideas to make poetry public! Here in NC we have a Poetry in Plain Sight project sponsored by the NC Poetry Society, which places 4 broadsides of poems in multiple stores in several cities each month. It gives NC poets more exposure and brings poetry to the people. I would live to see more of this.

    Joanne joanne@joannedurham.com Kure Beach NC

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