Do poetry videos reach larger audiences than poems on the page?

In her most recent Friday Video/Filmpoem post at Rubies in Crystal, featuring Glenn-emlyn Richards’ animation of a poem by Eleanor Rees called “Saltwater,” Brenda Clews describes a recent attempt to turn an audience on to videopoetry:

I treated a group to a series of video/film poems, only a few, because they tired very quickly — poetry is demanding enough on the page, let alone strung at you in a video where you can’t slow down, re-read, consider before moving on – but someone said, the one with the woman, the drawing, the ocean, that one was my favourite. In unison, they all agreed.

I commented that I was struck by her claim that video/filmpoems are actually more demanding than poems on the page. So many people make the opposite claim, especially about animated poems. Here, for example, is how the folks at Motion Poems promote their efforts to potential donors at

Contemporary poetry is a mystery to most casual readers: they rarely read it, and would have a hard time discovering great new poetry on their own. We think that’s a shame! So…

MOTIONPOEMS subverts that paradigm by giving casual readers a new way to discover poetry … as short films! That way, they can be distributed virally and on YouTube, in social networks, in classrooms, and in broadcast and film media. [ellipses original]

In close to three years of sharing videos, animated and otherwise, at Moving Poems, I’ve seen steady traffic but nothing to suggest I’m reaching very far beyond the existing fan base for poetry. The most popular videos tend to be those for Latin American poets, in particular Vicente Huidobro and Julia de Burgos. This makes sense: poetry is actually fairly popular in the Spanish-speaking world.

Of course, I do suck at promotion. With the names of poets included in the post titles at Moving Poems, and a reasonably good PageRank, the site is practically guaranteed to land in the first page of Google results for most poets I include. So O.K., I’m drawing in people who are already interested in poetry. But since I don’t use tags to describe the contents of the poems — something I’m reluctant to do on the grounds that it reduces a poem to the sum of its ostensible subjects — it’s very unlikely that, for example, someone interested in the Liverpudlian waterfront would land on my post of “Saltwater” (or Brenda’s, or Glenn-emlyn’s original upload at Vimeo), unless they did some very creative Google video search.

So yeah, doing things like using more descriptive tags could bring more traffic… but would that really enlarge the audience for poetry, or just disappoint more people looking for, you know, information? The question remains: Is mere conversion to the film or video medium enough to overcome the general reluctance of English-language readers to challenge themselves?

On YouTube and Vimeo, the most popular poetry videos in English tend to be either those for poets who are already popular (relatively speaking), such as Billy Collins and Rumi, or for videos that make a simple point extremely well and go viral as a result, such as a kinetic text animation for a spoken-word piece by Taylor Mali about people’s reluctance to express firm opinions, or Tanya Davis and Andrea Dorfman’s powerful statement on “How to Be Alone.”

I do think there’s an extent to which online poems in whatever form are helping to create a larger audience for poetry among those who have always kind of liked poems and/or enjoy an intellectual challenge, but may not be in the habit of sitting down to read poetry books and journals. That’s been my experience over the years with a number of sites, most notably this one, where I think one key to success has been my pattern of interspersing poems with other, more popular kinds of content (photos, personal or nature essays, brief polemics, etc.). This is the kind of thing blogs are good at: People come for the other stuff, develop an interest in the author, and eventually start reading the poems, too.

But if I ever thought that making and posting videopoems would enlarge the fan base for poetry here, I lost that illusion a long time ago. My videopoems usually average around 100 views — one quarter of what a poem in text form gets. That’s not as skewed as it sounds, since Vimeo only logs views from people who watch all the way to the end, and I don’t of course have comparable statistics for people who read a poem all the way through. The actual number of thorough readers may not be much more than 100 per poem. But the evidence so far does not suggest that Via Negativa visitors are more likely to take in a poem just because I’ve envideoed it.

So while I fervently hope that the animators at Motion Poems and similar projects are successful in bringing new audiences to poetry, I do tend to agree with Brenda that more elliptical or experimental film/videopoets will have to work at least as hard as traditional page-poets to reach an audience in the Anglophone world.

11 Replies to “Do poetry videos reach larger audiences than poems on the page?”

  1. Good post, Dave, and thanks, Brenda, for sparking this discussion. With all the hype about book trailers, and the tendency to do video poems as trailers for longer collections, I’d be curious whether videos about the authors themselves might actually get more views. I think most people are far more interested in other people than they are in poems, but maybe we could entice them to listen/read a bit more through engaging their interest in the person behind the words. I think it’s worked for you, Dave. Your site is the product of a person with a personality, even if you don’t tend to talk directly about yourself or about your personal life. That’s true for many of us who started out as bloggers. Just musing about this…I don’t have a firm opinion.

    1. That’s a good point, Beth. I’ve pushed for sponsoring videopoems as trailers for our last two qarrtsiluni chapbooks primarily because I wanted to reward the authors with something really cool. But I’m sure that a video that included the author, either in an interview and/or reading choice passages illustrated in a fairly literal fashion, would sell more books. Creative things can still be done within those confines, of course. January Gill O’Neil, for example, had the neat idea of imitating a cooking show.

  2. If you’d like, I would publish this piece as my first article in VidPoFilm’s “Theoretical Mondays” (because Monday should only be theoretical) if you edit it slightly.

    I was thinking a mostly successful video on YouTube garners 100,000 views or so, and if a videopoem did that, it’d be a huge smashing success.

    We’re lucky if they hit a 100 views. I think it’s a matter of building an audience, however slowly that might happen, and not titles or tags that does it in the long run. It’s a ‘niche market,’ to use the lingo speak.

    1. Well, by that measure there are probably only half a dozen successful Englsih-language videopoems.

      Sure, we can repost this at your site. Let me know what edits you’d want.

      1. I don’t think anyone creates video/film poems for those kinds of view counts, and if they did, they’d likely be in the wrong field.

        Actually, if I think about it, I know enough people who read and write poetry who don’t like video or film poems – it’s not, I am told, how they like their poetry.

        You know a different group of people. I don’t know that there’s any answer to this…

        I guess my take is that video/film poetry does not ‘increase the audience’ for poetry – ie reach people who ordinarily would not read poetry – because I don’t believe that happens in a general sense at all. People who are already interested in poetry might watch video poems, especially if they were considering make a video poem of their own they might want to see what sorts of styles there are. Otherwise, not too many poets watch the video poetry of other poets.

        Filmmakers watch the films of other filmmakers, including their film poems, this I’ve seen certainly.

        It’s all a very odd field. All I can truly make of it is that it is a new art form, and people have to learn how to approach reading a film poem, and how to understand it, and that this has to be taught.

        Basically you create your own audience, however you do that. You’ve created your own audience for your video poems, Dave, via Moving Poems. Surely you can see that you have done this; I can.

        There’s no ‘ready market’ for video/film poems. It just does not exist. Rather, there is terrific opposition to watching film poems by people who are used to reading their poetry on the page or screen. Audio poems are a little more acceptable than video poems, but not by much.

        To my mind, at least, making a film poem of a famous poem is nothing like a filmmaker making a film of a famous novel. The one struggles to be watched; the other only has difficulty if it’s not that good or cannot find distribution. There’s a market for the latter, but not the former. Lots of people will watch horrendously bad movies on TV that were based on best-selling books, but they won’t spend 3 minutes watching a video or film poem.

        They’ve learnt how to watch and enjoy narratives, but not how to watch and enjoy non-narratives, pieces that move by images and obscure language, that remain opaque and resistant to understanding fully.

        You can see I sit on the side of the fence of education, teaching, rather than on the side of let’s do this to promote this poem for an audience that is surely waiting for this.

        I love making videopoems. I find editing is similar to writing or painting – it takes me into the same place. It’s a process of discovery. Are these little pieces successful? With a teeny tiny view count, probably by anyone’s gauge stick, no; but to me, in my oeuvre, with what I’m trying to do in my work, yes.

        In the end I suspect that is all that counts, really.

        I could go on and on, and looks like I already have. Just my take – a little different to yours and Beth’s.

        The whole thing about tagging – that’s something I’ve never understood anyway, so am not much bothered about it.

        1. For editing, start with “In close to…” and elaborate on what you have discovered in those 3 years. In general. The comment on Spanish poetry videos should be in another paragraph. Also, perhaps take out some of the more colloquial phrasing. Yes, I’m asking for a summation of your years running Moving Poems and a position piece on ‘the audience’ for video/film poetry. Maybe not your “Manifesto” but on the way to it. You know I always want double posting – the more places the better – so this would be published in your blog(s) as well as at VidPoFilm.

          I could copy it into a Google Doc & make some suggestions & then you can take it from there if you like.

          Also, aren’t you speaking at a Video Poetry Conference or something – or has that already happened? This might be preparation for that, too.

          The gears are already working, clearly, with your publishing this piece in Via Negativa, and likely once you start to write, it’ll pour out. No preferences on length. Just say everything you need to say.

  3. What I wonder is what the “views” actually mean. As Dave pointed out, it doesn’t mean that people read/watch until the end.

    When I was blogging a lot a few years back I used to see lots of tips about what kind of words or tags to use to increase traffic. I didn’t see how increasing my traffic because people where searching for Top Gear car type articles (and I slipped in some tag words because I mentioned watching Top Gear in passing) would increase my readership. But I know nothing about marketing…

    1. One big thing I could do in a blog like this is use baldly descriptive titles. The few times I’ve done that, with posts such as “Viking nicknames” or “How to format poetry for the web,” I’ve seen a lot of search-engine traffic. But most of the time I’ll go with a more interesting or lyrical but less descriptive title. Since I’m not currently trying to sell ads, I don’t have any reason to want to increase traffic much beyond the regular readership. When traffic does go up, it can create a real strain on my hosting company’s server. Even though they don’t charge for extra bandwidth, they must cap CPU usage in a shared hosting environment to avoid impacting other sites on the server, and having lots of extra requests sent to the database does increase CPU. So small is beautiful as far as I’m concerned.

  4. Do wordless (ie: visual only) poems qualify? I’ve just posted one. If someone wants to try combining my animation with a spoken poem instead of the music I chose, I’d be glad to send them a silent version.

  5. Yes, that’s the one Dave – hot off the press.
    Anyone interested can leave a comment over at Blaugustine and I’ll respond.
    I can remove the soundtrack from a copy of that video, then pass it on to whoever wants to put in a new soundtrack, assuming they have the software to do that.
    Alternatively, if can they time it to the exact length of my animation, they could send me an audio clip and I’ll put it together with the video track, using iMovie (as I usually do).

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