A new generation of young, digitally astute poets are building large online followings, putting out best-selling poetry collections and challenging the notion that poetry is a literary art form in decline.
On a recent Friday night, Tyler Knott Gregson, a tattooed poet from Montana, took the stage at a Manhattan bookstore and beamed at the crowd that had come to celebrate his new haiku collection.
“This is rad. I appreciate it,” he said, taking in the roughly 150 people who had crowded into Barnes & Noble. The response from the mostly young, mostly female audience amounted to a collective swoon.
Seven years ago, 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 belongs to a new generation of young, digitally astute poets whose loyal online followings have helped catapult them onto the best-seller lists, where poetry books are scarce. These amateur poets are not winning literary awards, and most have never been in a graduate writing workshop.
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Instead, their appeal lies in the unpolished flavor of their verses, which often read as if they were ripped from a diary. And their poems are reaching hundreds of thousands of readers, attracting the attention of literary agents, editors and publishers, and overturning poetry’s longstanding reputation as a lofty art form with limited popular appeal.
The rapid rise of Instapoets probably will not shake up the literary establishment, and their writing is unlikely to impress literary critics or purists who might sneer at conflating clicks with artistic quality. But they could reshape the lingering perception of poetry as a creative medium in decline.
Gregson’s first poetry book, “Chasers of the Light,” became a national best-seller and has more than 120,000 copies in print. To put that figure in perspective, Louise Glück’s collection “Faithful and Virtuous Night,” which won the National Book Award for poetry last year, has sold about 20,000 copies.
Gregson’s new book, “All the Words Are Yours,” seems to have an equally broad appeal, with a first printing of 100,000 copies. Many of the haiku are brief meditations on love and longing that have racked up thousands of comments online.
“I want my days filled/ and my nights saturated/ with the sound of you,” reads one poem, which received 8,770 notes on Tumblr.
The collection recently hit No. 3 on Nielsen’s top 10 best-selling poetry titles, ahead of Dante, Homer, Seamus Heaney and Khalil Gibran.
Gregson was not the only digital insurgent on the list. Three of the 10 current top-selling poetry books in the country are collections by young writers who have built followings on Tumblr and Instagram, including Rupi Kaur’s “Milk and Honey” and Lang Leav’s “Memories,” according to Nielsen.
Leav, who lives in New Zealand, started posting her verses on Tumblr in 2012 and was stunned when they spread quickly online. “I don’t know what possessed me to post it online, since a lot of it’s quite personal,” she said. “But it really resonated, and people started sharing it on social media.”
Her online followers — there are about 1 million — hounded her for a print collection. So in 2013 she self-published “Love & Misadventure,” which sold 10,000 copies in the first month. She found an agent and quickly received an offer from a publisher, Andrews McMeel, which has released three of her poetry books.
Those collections, with poems about love, sex, heartache and betrayal, have collectively sold more than 300,000 copies.
“Take me someplace where I can feel something — I want to give away my heart,” one of her poems begins.
It’s hard to pinpoint what is fueling the popularity of poetry on Tumblr and Instagram, sites better known for circulating celebrity selfies and animal photos. But as with many inexplicable viral phenomena, there’s often a Kardashian sister involved.
Last fall, Khloé Kardashian shared Leav’s poem “Closure” on Instagram, where she has more than 35 million followers. That first-person poem, about the aftermath of a breakup, has received 419,000 “likes.” Kardashian’s Instagram feed also drove hordes of readers to the poetry of Robert M. Drake, whose celebrity fan base also includes Kardashian’s sisters Kylie and Kendall Jenner and the rappers Ludacris and Nicki Minaj.
Drake, a Miami poet whose real name is Robert Macias, now has 1.3 million Instagram followers and a passionate print readership. In the past year, he has sold about 160,000 copies of his self-published poetry books “Black Butterfly” and “Beautiful Chaos.”
“I’m still in shock that I sold so many units in such a short amount of time, and it’s poetry, a genre people don’t pay attention to,” said Macias, whose verses are often short, punchy and inspirational.
Poetry’s resurgence is hardly assured. The percentage of Americans who said they read poetry fell to 6.7 percent in 2012, from 12 percent in 2002, according to a report by the National Endowment for the Arts.
But the death spiral may be slowing. A YouTube channel for spoken-word poetry, Button Poetry, has nearly 430,000 subscribers, and the Academy of American Poets reaches more than 350,000 readers with its digital “Poem-a-Day” series.
Some established poets say the appetite for poetry on social media has benefited the entire field, not just newcomers, and has opened up avenues for writers who most likely would have struggled to find a publisher.
“You’re no longer dependent on the gatekeepers,’’ said Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine. “It’s a great podium for poets who otherwise might seem to the mainstream culture to be marginalized.”