A few thoughts: Newsweek says
the number of adults reading poetry had continued to decline, bringing poetry's readership to its lowest point in at least 16 years.
Sixteen years isn't a hugely long time. Who was all that popular back in 1993? Someone, I guess. In any case, if these figures are right, they're indicative of a cycle more than anything else.
Newsweek goes on to say:
Sunil Iyengar, the NEA's director of the Office of Research and Analysis, says the agency can't answer with certainty why fewer adults are reading poetry. He and others believed the opposite would be true, largely because of poetry's expansion onto the Internet. "In fact," he says, "part of our surmise as to why fiction reading rates seem to be up might be due to greater opportunities through online reading. But we don't know why with poetry that's not the case."
Here's a thought -- sometimes when figures are counterintuitive, it means they're wrong. And I have a hard time believing these figures, precisely because of online reading. I know that sites like Pedestal and Cortland Review and Poetry Daily and Verse Daily get a lot more hits per day than any print literary review ever has. Why are these not showing up on the NEA's survey? I don't know. I don't create surveys. I know that when Laurie Ylvisaker ran the Woodstock Poetry Festival for three years in the early 2000s, it was one of the town's best tourist attractions. Woodstock filled up, all the major events (Billy Collins, Stephen Dunn, Philip Levine, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, etc.) sold out, and the smaller events did well too.
The article ends by quoting Donald Hall, whose book of elegies for his late wife Jane Kenyon made best-seller lists in 1999 (as did Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters in 2002):
"I'm 80 years old," he says. "[For] 60 years I've been reading about poetry losing its audience."