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?


  1. I agree - and would add that many books are too long; novels and essay collections included. Even great ones - Mansfield Park for example, just goes on and on...
    My favourite form is the novella - so many great ones. Jean Rhys's books are effectively novella's for example and yet they are perfectly formed. So too a novel like, say, Brighton Rock, which is a little longer, but not much.
    Good blog by the way - can't even think now how I found my way here - but whatever, good to see another writer blogging seriously - or should that be serious writer blogging? It works both ways...

  2. A belated thanks for your comments. I suppose I picked on poetry books because they're easier to shorten than novels are, and it's easier for poets to market-test their material piecemeal beforehand (using magazines).