Tuesday 10 August 2010

Comments about poetry publishing

I've recently been commenting in other blogs and on discussion boards. I thought I'd bundle my comments here in no particular order

  • The market for serious poetry may always have been vanishingly small. Perhaps poetry-reading has reached its natural level, increasing only as the number of poetry-studiers do. The role of much poetry may have been taken over by prose, pop and cinema. Why buy a 9 pound poetry book with 45 sparse pages when you could watch Inception?

  • Things aren't just bad in the UK. In Italy recently, Luigi Manzi suggested a moratorium on publishing modern poetry books. Fabrizio Dall'Aglio replied "frankly I think many publishers (me included) would be in favour"
  • the poetry book market is in recession and institutional publishers are retreating to their heartland - the stuff that only poetry can do. Comedy? Leave that to stand-ups - they do it better. Narrative? Flash writers do it better. You may not like "pure poetry", "specialist poetry" (call it what you will) but I can understand why funds concentrate on it. It's meant that the gap between "high" and "low" poetry has been emptied, so that there's less flow and intermixing between the extremes (to the detriment of both, perhaps).
  • Many publishers don't read slush piles. A row of poetry books is a slush pile one level up. Most people don't have the time to pan for gold-dust, they want help. Buying a poetry book is high-risk. At least with a ropey novel you might learn something about Tudor times, or life in Japan, or you might escape from the stresses of life for a while. A duff slim volume by a touted has-been on auto-pilot is over with in a hour. I know of prose-writers who give poetry another chance every couple of years. I know of non-poets who've tried to get their spouse a present. Choosing a book is hard for them - blurbs need de-ciphering (even those used to novel blurbs have trouble), browsing isn't easy (it's all opaque to them anyway) and reviews are too glowing. Once bitten, twice shy - for a few years anyway.
  • Poetry books seem to have become more expensive and thinner while novels have become cheaper and fatter. I can imagine a first time poetry buyer getting "Gift Horses" by Simon Rae (National Poetry Competition winner in 1999, 2nd in 1996; poems in the TLS, Poetry Review) and feeling terribly ripped-off. Too few good poems (indeed - too few poems: 45 pages for 8.95). Someone who buys Prynne because the Guardian says he's England's greatest living poet might well end up thinking this modern poetry stuff's not for them.
  • "What else can you get for 8 quid nowadays?" The poet's usual answer's a pint and a burger. But in fact you can get a few symphonies, a decent DVD or even a novel - White Noise. Possession, etc.
  • Who defines "publishable standard"? The Academics or the Public? If the public don't want the book, maybe it's not good enough for today's more exacting standards. Suppose poetry books joined in the "cuts of 25%" craze, cutting book-lengths by 25%? I'd claim it would improve many books. If authors feel that the rest merits publication they can send to Magma, Other Poetry etc. If (as I suspect) the mags don't want it, nuff said.
  • If expert poetry readers can survive without High Street bookshops or public libraries, perhaps those resources can be aimed more towards the literate poetry first-timer - the wider public "whose understanding of poets is two hundred years out of date and whose awareness of poetry is either a hundred years behind the times or else still stuck in the 1960s" (Neil Astley)
  • Loads of "modern poetry" means nothing to prose readers (there are people at the local writers group who apologize for not understanding it. My wife prefers to get angry - though in her defense she only has my stuff to go on). I see too few poetry books that offer choice (or paths from the familiar) for the uninitated. I think a Don Paterson book does. Maybe a Simon Barraclough too. I think the balance is too far towards single-author (single-aesthetic) books.
  • Perhaps the poetry market needs to go the computer programs way, sharing its expectations (both from a producer and consumer perspective). There are enough free games and operating systems to keep some people happy for life. That something's free doesn't mean that it's rubbish or that it didn't take years to write, or that the author doesn't become famous. Or maybe the market (as has been suggested here before) should go more the iTunes way, a single at a time.
  • More bottom-up evaluation mechanisms need to emerge. I use Rotten Tomatoes for films. If more of us put reviews (not just praise - though in times of shrinking sales, that's tempting) online, something similar could be done for poetry. The tendency to commit to print only positive reviews might de-value their currency and result in unbalanced coverage. Again, it's outsiders who'll have the most trouble sussing the resulting scene.
  • Every National Poetry Day we're told that poetry's never been more popular - which is probably true - "Forward Press is the largest publisher of new poetry in the world; we've published in excess of a million original poems since 1989 earning us the moniker: 'The People's Publisher'". In "The Forward book of poetry" intro for 2008 (not to be confused with Forward Press) William Sieghart wrote "The phenomenal growth of interest in poetry of all kinds since [1992] has been one of the most rewarding aspects of running the Forward Prizes". The person who runs the poetry pf site said their hit count trebles in February, on the run up to Valentine's Day. As usual it depends what you mean by poetry.
  • I think "voice" is just a more cuddly version of "style", more likely to include personality features than a style is. The word "voice" sounds more natural, more an extension of something within; it's further from technique than "style" is. You'd expect it to be used more in Confessionalism times than Mannerist eras. I'm reading an Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize winner at the moment. Wilbur's foreward plays safe - he almost alternates style and voice: "sharp intelligence"; "good heart"; "great technical gift"; "strongly personal, in the sense that its tone and vision are distinctive and recognizable"; "a first book in which the poet's voice has been fully found".
  • A new style/genre/technique can be a way to take your voice away from familiar setting and habits, into a new climate or maze. You might write something new there, you might never return, or you might bring a keepsake back to ornament your comfort zone. Or maybe nothing happens. But that's common - when scientists do blue-sky research, or songwriters dabble at a keyboard they don't know beforehand how much of their time will be "wasted"
  • When US academics came to be assessed by the number of papers they published, the idea of a "minimally publishable idea" emerged - if an idea's just about good enough to justify a paper, why put more ideas in? By spreading the ideas out, more papers can be authored, and the ideas aren't wasted. I sometimes feel (especially with themed or commissioned collections) that poets have paced themselves, making the maximum number of poems from the ideas they have. The results can look like a calmer voice, "quietly assured".
  • A book's a cumbersome unit, like 100 pound notes. Some books I've recently read ("Blind Spots", Carol Rumens; "A Fold in the Map", Isobel Dixon) are organised as 2 generous pamphlets. Several other books are in sections that could be separated. Maybe Bookshops are more baised towards books than readers and poets are. Now that Bookshops and visible spines matter less, perhaps collections will find their natural page-length. Magazines could publish work-in-progress.


  1. Many good points here. The problem I find is that it’s like global warming: I’d love to put an end to it but all I can do is my bit – put out the recycling, don’t drive a car – and hope that others do their bit too. I’ve just published a book of poetry. I’ve been writing poetry for almost forty years and this is my first full collection. I charge £5.99 including postage and I still make a small profit on each book. My wife thinks that people will think there’s something wrong with the book because it’s so cheap. Far from it, it contains some of my best work, but people still aren’t falling over themselves to buy it. Even the people who have read the very positive reviews and say nice things in the comments still aren’t buying it. And if they didn’t buy it there and then what’s the odds they’ll remember it later? I certainly don’t.

    I think much of the problem with poetry is the fault of poets who have had a chip on their shoulders. The same happened with art and music, a general . . . contempt probably isn’t too strong a word for it . . . for their audiences. Things are turned the corner musically. Yes, old stalwarts like Boulez and Stockhausen are hanging on in there but there has been a general return to tonality, music with actual tunes. But what about poetry? People are still under the approach poetry warily assuming that they’re not going to get it and probably be made to feel stupid for not getting it. That’s how I feel.

    Then there is the explosion of Internet poetry. Poetry is hugely popular. All I have to do is look at the stats on my site and it’s the poetry articles that get the big hits. So people are interested and people are writing what they think is poetry but are they? I see the blind leading the blind all over the place. It’s a direct reaction to . . . let’s just call it hard poetry. People want transparent poetry and they’ve been willing to sacrifice pretty much everything to get it although there are a few who just think that if they dump raw emotions on a page and call it poetry then it is poetry.

    The answer? Like I said I have no idea. I do my bit. I write articles talking about how I write, remind people about poetic techniques but, and I freely admit this, I’m not that bright either. There is a huge amount of poetry that is unknown to me and that puts me in a very difficult position: how can I fly the flag for something I just don’t get?

  2. Many good points here - I can't take much credit - the bits that aren't quotes were provoked by discussion elsewhere by people who know and care more about these matters.
    The answer? Like I said I have no idea. I do my bit ... how can I fly the flag for something I just don’t get? - Ditto. All I can say is that (1) over the last few months I've become less keen on the idea of grant money going towards poetry book publication (2) the intelligent lay-person (especially readers of literary novels) could be a source of poetry readership but they need more help than they're currently getting. Just effusing isn't enough. Some poets don't seem to worry (or know?) that intelligent, artistic readers can be so utterly baffled by their poetry. I once suggested that someone should hold a lunchtime seminar in a Univ science dept, inviting people to bring along examples of poetry they just don't get. At least then a dialog would be opened. I'm not suggesting that the person should try to defend all the samples, but at least they should try to explain (sociologically if not artistically) why, say, WCW's red wheelbarrow is so often anthologized.

  3. I suspect you may be a bit unnecessarily bleak, Tim. The golden ages of poetry readership generally produced a fair amount of dross (think of the Georgian Anthologies) etc. The average new novel sells in hundreds not in thousands. You could of course spend the cost of a poetry book on a DVD or a novel (the novels you name are already popular established classics, not first novels - try substituting a new novel by an unknown novelist), but it isn't in fact expensive. You'd pay five times the price of a book to get into a Premier League football match and three times as much for a lower league.

    It isn't poetry alone that suffers from low exposure and sales, most of what we call literature does. The books that sell are not primarily literary. So your issue is with the low level support for literature (what Hungarians call szépirodalom, which means roughly what Fine Art means in relation to art, but applied to literature).

    I receive about two announcements per week for new publishers and new magazines for poetry - and do in fact contribute when I can. That suggests energy and hope. It's technology that makes this possible.

    In any case, I suspect we are talking about two different things. One is the culture of commerce, the other is the culture of esteem. It is hard to 'quarrel' with the first, but the second is continually up for debate. Whose esteem? How is it bestowed? etc. The T S Eliot Prize readings pack out the Queen Elizabeth Hall; Aldeburgh is fully booked. Books sell at these events. That is partly because they have esteem.

    The subject of esteem is too big for a comment box. I have dealt with esteem in visual art on my own blog at times. I would like to add yours to my own blog links (in fact have done so) because I admire the intelligence, seriousness and exhaustive reading I find here.

  4. I suspect you may be a bit unnecessarily bleak - I've just returned from a WWW-less break in Greece (Mycenae, etc). I took the latest issue of The Dark Horse with me. John Lucas has an 8 page article on "Identity Parade" in there. It's not bleak, but I think the recent wave of anthos has provoked some grumpy [over-]reactions.

    You'd pay five times the price of a book to get into a Premier League football match - you could even buy a team (I'm a Pompey fan trying to get out of the habit of listening for Premier League results and trips to Wembley)

    It isn't poetry alone that suffers from low exposure and sales - I can't name a living composer of serious music ("serious" can't be the right word, but I'm stuck even there)

    Whose esteem? How is it bestowed? ... I have dealt with esteem in visual art on my own blog at times. I would like to add yours to my own blog links - I'm interested in how technology transfer affects the patterns of esteem. http://www2.eng.cam.ac.uk/~tpl/texts/WWWstandards.html is an article from "Acumen" but Chris Hamilton-Emery is mapping the terrain and pathways (blog links being one of them of course, so thanks) far more thoroughly.