Record £12m sales last year were driven by younger readers, with experts saying hunger for nuance amid conflict and disaster were fuelling the boom
A passion for politics, particularly among teenagers and young millennials, is fuelling a dramatic growth in the popularity of poetry, with sales of poetry books hitting an all-time high in 2018.
Statistics from UK book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan show that sales grew by just over 12% last year, for the second year in a row. In total, 1.3m volumes of poetry were sold in 2018, adding up to £12.3m in sales, a rise of £1.3m on 2017. Two-thirds of buyers were younger than 34 and 41% were aged 13 to 22, with teenage girls and young women identified as the biggest consumers last year.
Rupi Kaur, a 26-year-old Canadian poet with 3.4 million followers on Instagram, leads the bestsellers list and was responsible for almost £1m of sales. “You tell me to quiet down / cause my opinions make me less beautiful,” she writes in Milk and Honey, the No 1 bestselling collection of 2018, “but I was not made with a fire in my belly / so I could be put out.”
Works by Leonard Cohen, John Cooper Clarke, Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy and Homer also sold well.
Andre Breedt, for Nielsen, said that sales were booming because in times of political upheaval and uncertainty, people turn to poems to make sense of the world: “Poetry is resonating with people who are looking for understanding. It is a really good way to explore complex, difficult emotions and uncertainty.”
He added that the form’s brevity also meant it could be easily consumed on phones and shared on social media.
In the immediate aftermath of the Manchester bombing, Tony Walsh’s reading of his poem, This Is the Place, at Manchester town hall was shared thousands of times online and became instantly famous worldwide. Ben Okri’s poem Grenfell Tower, June, 2017, written in the aftermath of the fire, followed a similar trajectory.
“At these moments of national crisis, the words that spread and the words that were heard were not the words of politicians, they were the words of poets,” said Susannah Herbert, director of the Forward Arts Foundation, which runs the Forward prizes for poetry and National Poetry Day. “Almost everything a politician says is incredibly forgettable. There is a hunger out there for more nuanced and memorable forms of language.”
People wanted to cut through the verbiage of Brexit to see the bigger picture in 2018, she said: “Language gets stale in politics. Words begin to lose their meaning. Poetry occupies a different space to the humdrum. It is a way of renewing what words actually mean. It offers you a different way of looking at the world.”
A comparable boom in the popularity of poetry was seen during the miners’ strike in the 1980s and during the rise of Chartism in the 19th century, according to Katy Shaw, professor of contemporary writings at Northumbria University.
“To me, it’s no coincidence that poetry as a form is being used to critically discuss events like Grenfell, the Manchester bombing and Brexit as well,” she said. “It’s being repurposed as this really dynamic and vital form that can capture, in a very condensed way, the turbulent nature of contemporary society – and give us the space to struggle with our desire to understand and negotiate a lot of what is going on at the moment.”
Like the miners and Chartists did before them, people are reading and sharing poetry not to passively reflect on what’s going on in society, but as a way of engaging, said Shaw. “Poetry as a form can capture the immediate responses of people to divisive and controversial current events. It questions who has the authority to put their narrative forward, when it is written by people who don’t otherwise hold this power,” she said. “Writing poetry and sharing it in this context is a radical event, an act of resistance to encourage other people to come round to your perspective.”
Social media and technology have made poetry much easier to access and pass along, magnifying its impact, Shaw said: “In the miners’ strike, we had poetry being written on the side of instruction manuals and printed on typewriters, distributed by hand or sent through the post. Similarly, we have evidence of a lot of Chartist poetry being publicly read out and shared between different groups of workers.
“But poetry has a strong oral tradition – it wasn’t always written down, people would learn it and recite it. The one great advantage we have now is the speed at which we can share new work.”