At the end of a poetry reading not too long ago, a boy walked up to Billy Collins and handed him a baseball. He asked the poet to sign it.
"It was already signed by [U.S. poet laureate] Robert Pinsky," Collins recalls. "He was a young kid who went to a lot of poetry readings and was assembling this poetry baseball. I'm not sure of what the line-up would have been."
Collins and the other heavy hitters who had signed the ball may not be household names like the names normally scribbled on baseballs. But to some in the publishing business, poetry has become more accessible, perhaps more popular than it was 20 years ago.
"Name something that is not experiencing a renaissance these days," says Collins, who recently rocked the word industry by getting an unprecedented six-figure contract from Random House for three books of poems. "There's more of everything these days.
"It's more part of the information communication tsunami," Collins explains. "Poetry writing is uncontaminated by public language, it's uncontaminated by the desires of others to have you do this or that. It's a place that you control, a kind of meditative spot, like going to church on Sundays or going to see a psychiatrist once a week. Playtime."
James Marcus, a literature and fiction editor at Amazon.com, the online bookseller in Seattle, credits some of poetry's increased visibility to the birth some 15 years ago of "poetry slams," events at which anyone can get up on a stage, read or recite poems and have the audience rate the work on a scale of zero to 10. Reading groups and the emergence of a more diverse group of poets have helped, too, he adds.
Poetry is returning to public life, Marcus thinks, after a fallow period in the popular culture. "By the 1970s," he says, "the postwar generation of poets began to die off, and I don't think anyone stepped in to fill their shoes in terms of how central they were to culture."
Bill Wadsworth, executive director of the New York-based Academy of American Poets, which sponsors National Poetry Month each April, agrees. "Poetry did enjoy a lot more centrality in the culture up to the 1970s," he says. "Then it went into kind of an eclipse. By the 1980s, publishers had become so commercial, and they dropped poetry. The need to make profits became the main priority."
More funding from philanthropic organizations and a conscious effort to get poetry out of universities have helped to pull poetry back into the spotlight, Wadsworth adds. So has a series of active poets laureate -- appointed annually by the Library of Congress.
When Pinsky stepped into that position in 1997, the Boston University professor of creative writing launched the Favorite Poems project. Americans were asked to choose poems important to them and say a few lines about them for a national video and audio archive, as well as an anthology. The response was overwhelming.
"We had to cut it off at 18,000," Pinsky says. "The number and quality of the letters came as something of a surprise. It was also surprising to have so many public favorite-poem readings, with partici- pants ranging from adult literacy students to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., from homeless people to the president of the United States, from schoolkids to the elderly."
He suggests that "American culture seems to have shifted a little toward that of Latin American or Eastern European cultures, where poetry has a distinct following in the general population and a distinct place in national life."
Therese Eiben, editor of Poets & Writers magazine, says that "poetry isn't just for Ph.D.s. The number of conferences and festivals for poetry has just been jumping; it's been going on easily and strongly for 10 years." Her magazine has been the must-have journal for scribes since it was founded 30 years ago. "Our circulation is up 20 percent in 1999 from 1998, and the number of classifieds is record-breaking," Eiben says.
She has also noticed a wealth of poetry journals and "decidedly low-tech" publications devoted to the art. "There's a whole sub-network of poets who are aware of other poets in other regions. They are young, vibrant and totally committed. They don't want any editorial strong-arming. It's become easier for people to get published with the Internet and places like the local Kinko's."
The pervasive influence of technology may have helped poetry in one other very important way, Eiben adds: a growth in students pursuing degrees in the arts. According to figures gathered by Associated Writing Programs in Fairfax, Va., almost 140 master's degree programs in creative writing were offered in the United States in 1998, up from about 30 in 1975. The number of master-in-fine-arts programs rose to 83 in 1998 from 15 in 1975.
"There's definitely a surge in the number of graduate poetry-writing programs and poetry readings," says Hoa Nguyen, a 33-year-old poet and co-publisher of a small press in Austin, Texas. She and her husband, Dale Smith, 32, put out the journal Skanky Possum twice a year, their "very low-fi attempt to share poetry with friends and poets around the world."
But Smith doesn't think all the attention is good news. "It's great that poetry is popular," he says. "But what is it that's being recognized as poetry?"
True poetry is not easy and accessible, Smith contends. He notes that Plato warned in his "Republic" that poetry threatened the social and political orders.
"Of course, if there's money to be made from it," Smith says, "then the art of poetry will be tainted, reduced to something a large audience can consume. What happens to an art that began thousands of years ago as a kind of magical practice, full of demons, spirits and heroic acts, when it is flattened and fitted into a 21st-century publishing house's marketing department?"
But the marketing experts and popularity buzz don't seem to have flattened and fitted his wife, or dispelled whatever demons and spirits surround her. Nguyen says she still faces incomprehension when she tells anyone that she's a poet.
"There's a sort of blankness. They get nervous," she says. "They don't know what to ask."
Like many poets, Nguyen also has what she calls "a money job." She works at the University of Texas student union, where she meets lots of students.
"They all know I'm a poet," she says. "I sense they don't read poetry as they might fiction or glossy magazines or know the work of contemporary American poets. I think if they did, we would talk about it. At slams, I don't get a sense of readership. The poets are going to read their own stuff. It's kind of an ego deal."
"The audience is growing," Collins says. "But it tends to be a closed circuit. Most of the people who are attending poetry readings are poets themselves. We want more readers and need fewer poets. Maybe half the poets should stop writing poetry and spend the rest of their lives reading."