28 million adult readers represents a significant uptick from the previous survey in 2012, which showed only 7% of the population reading poetry. That survey suggested a steady decline in readership and occasioned one of the many, many by-now-familiar headlines announcing (or contesting) poetry's slow demise. In this context, 12 percent participation in poetry, however modest, can feel to proponents of the form like a sign of its revitalization and cause for celebration.
Amy Stolls, the NEA's literature director, notes that "social media has had an influence, as well as other robust outreach activities and efforts," such as Poetry Out Loud, the NEA Big Read, and various grants and fellowships that support poetry publishers and poets themselves.
Even before the NEA's new survey results, other observers have speculated that poetry's role in the resistance movements that have proliferated in the past five years — most notably Black Lives Matter — may be boosting its audience.
As poet Jane Hirschfield told the New York Times last year: "When poetry is a backwater, it means times are OK. When times are dire, that's exactly when poetry is needed."
From this angle, it's no surprise that the NEA's data indicates that a 5 percent boost in readership has been driven mostly by increases among young adults, women, and racial and ethnic minorities—precisely those people most at risk under the current administration, and most likely to be involved in social protest and online activism.
Chad Bennett from the University of Texas–Austin, where he teach courses in contemporary poetry, also sensed an increased curiosity about poetry in recent years, a palpable need among students for whatever poetry provides: "When my students read poems, they seem relieved that what the poem demands of them is not an instantaneous "like"—that their emotional responses aren't required to fit neatly within the Facebook-style reactions of laughter, sadness, awe, or anger. They understand that poems often nourish questions more than answers. Poems tend to foster uncertainty. Poems cultivate mixed feelings. And this is the kind of experience I believe poetry readers, however many of us there are, are after. It is an experience that, for those of us in especially precarious worlds, appears both increasingly rare and increasingly urgent".