Sunday 16 May 2021

Poetry books that are too long

Some quite well known poets produce books with only a few good poems in them. After those, the quality drops dramatically. Even if the best poems are excellent, are such books a good buy? Many readers will be grateful for the good poems and quickly forget the rest, but why should they?

If a poem can't get published in a magazine despite several attempts, why should it be considered good enough to be included in a book? True, some poems work better as part of a sequence, but equally, that might be a clue that the poem has too many inert lines.

Books can be too long for several reasons -

  • A publisher thinks it's about time one of their poets gets a book out, before readers forget about them. In particular, there's a rush to get the second book out if the first is a success. I remember how pop groups used to be pushed into releasing LPs regularly.
  • A poet's written a poem that won a prize or has appeared on TV, and this is considered enough make a book marketable.
  • A poet doesn't write many poems. The publisher thinks that people wouldn't buy a 35 page book for £10, so they add many poems that wouldn't normally make the cut.
  • The book's a commission.

Of course pamphlets offer an alternative. A pamphlet each 5 years may be preferable to a book each decade.

It's not only poetry books that have QA issues. Flash fiction books are appearing nowadays which are about as long as poetry books, and contain as many pieces. The poetry book market is mature, but reader expectations for Flash fiction books haven't been established yet. Already I've seen Flash fiction collections which sag soon after the early rush of better pieces - why didn't the author wait?

Wednesday 5 May 2021

What One Can Invent

Hans Christian Andersen's What One Can Invent merits a read. It's part fable, part satire.

  • This is the start - There was once a young man who studied to become a poet. He wanted to be a poet by next Easter, so that he could marry and earn his living from poetry, which he knew was just a matter of making things up. But he had no imagination. He firmly believed he had been born too late. Every subject had been used up before he had a chance at it, and there was nothing in the world left to write about.
  • He visits an old lady, who lived in a tiny gate-house. She says "Just try on my spectacles, listen through my ear-trumpet, say your prayers, and please, for once in your life, stop thinking about yourself." That last request was asking almost too much of him. It was more than any woman, however wise and wonderful, should demand of a poet.
  • She shows him a potato, a blackthorn, a bee hive, then gets him to watch the people on the road. He has many ideas. But when he returns her ear-trumpet and spectacles, the ideas go. So she suggests "Write about those who write. To criticise their writing is to criticise them, but don't let that trouble you. The more critically you write, the more you'll earn, and you and your wife will eat cake every day."