The problem with poetry

by Teika

Poetry sales are booming – yes, no, maybe?

Just the other day an article published in the Guardian brought the news that sales of poetry books in the UK were at an all  time high, having passed the £12M mark at the end of 2018. So, good news, then? Well, yes and no. The reason given for this trend is “political upheaval”. There is a precedent for this – historically, in times of societal and political turmoil, individuals have turned to poetry to seek clarity, or comfort, or answers. And this is certainly a politically confusing time. Then again, to those readers and writers who already know of the balm that poetry can offer, this is nothing new. Indeed, Deborah Alma, the “Emergency Poet” has been doling out prescriptions of poetry for the past six years, and just the other day it was confirmed that, along with her partner, she’ll be opening up the UK’s first ever poetry pharmacy. I have no doubt that with support from the local community it has the potential to become a thriving literary hub.

However, as someone who runs a small press that publishes poetry and has an eye on the big picture, the Guardian’s “boom in poetry sales” was rather a non-story. For in the grand scheme of the publishing industry, in which billions of pounds of book sales are made (£3.7B in 2017), £12M is small fry (about 0.3%). So it’s rather like supermarkets saying: Hooray, we sold more pomegranates than ever this year! Good for those of us who like pomegranates, and for those who grow pomegranates, but completely irrelevant to the many who always bypass the exotic fruit section in a supermarket.

 

You can never have too many pomegranates…

 

In addition, a detailed look at those poetry sales will reveal the usual story: the majority of poetry book sales will come from a small minority of famous contemporary poets (some of which are particularly adept at using social media as a platform for their poetry), as well as the classical poets (both will, in the main, be published by the big presses). Your common or garden poet, published by one of the many, many small presses in the UK, won’t really see any substantial rise in sales of their books. Publisher Jamie McGarry, of Valley Press, gave a pithy summation of the sales picture on Twitter:

“…it could well be that 99% of that figure goes to a handful of poets and presses. But that’s capitalism for you!”

However, if I’m being particularly optimistic, I’d like to think that those increased sales of books by “big poets” will, in some way, trickle-down to those “not so big” poets busy working away on their craft irrespective of whether poetry sales are on the increase or decrease. Switching to pessimistic mode though (some may say realistic mode!) I’d say that poetry world will never, and can never truly be, a place in which a poet could reliably make money. And why is that?

Well, for a start, there is the sheer number of poets and poetry books/pamphlets out there. Helena Nelson, of HappenStance Press, recently wrote that in 2018 she was sent just over 150 pamphlets to review over at Sphinx, the review website. She went on to guess that 200-300 poetry pamphlets are published every year. I’d actually hazard that that’s a low estimate. You only have to visit Free Verse, an annual poetry book and magazine fair, to get a sense of the huge amount of poetry that’s out there (but usually unseen). Yet still, there are simply not enough readers willing to pay for poetry. Now it gets even more complex, and ever-so-slightly metaphysical…

 

Schrödinger’s poetry

When the news broke that Mary Oliver had died on 17 January, social media was flooded with mourning for this remarkable woman who had spoken to so many through her poetry. ‘Wild Geese’ – arguably one of her most famous poems – was shared over and over. It is a testament to her humanity and great skill as a writer, that her seemingly straightforward poems harbour such great power.

Yet therein lies the crux of the thorny and complex issue for poets wishing to earn a living through their poetry: when a poem that speaks of the human condition is so well-crafted that it connects with a reader at such a deep, fundamental level, most readers will understand the poem to solely be an empathetic exchange between two humans, and never consider it as a piece of writing. With a nodding head the reader may well think: You’ve felt that too. To the reader, the poem is a freely given gift – a comfort doled out and passed down the generations to those who grieve or are suffering or struggling in any way. Or it is inspiration, or acknowledgement of love, or gratitude, or any of those other things that we humans so badly need. And it is a gift. The reader claims their ownership of it. It is theirs to keep and cherish.

But here is the complex thorniness: in general, the greater the empathetic connection a poem generates, the greater the skill of the poet, and, hence, the greater the labour and time spent on their craft. Yet unless the poet is independently wealthy (and there are countless examples from the past of great poets who were) that time and labour spent on their craft will come at a cost. And who is to pay for that?

Certainly, it’s an issue that supporters of the arts and funding bodies – such as Arts Council England – acknowledge and strive to address. Poetry is of benefit to humans, therefore it is of benefit to society. Ergo, poets must be paid to spend time honing their craft. And the work that they create must be paid for. But there’s another fly in the ointment – nowadays, there is tons of the stuff (poor, mediocre, good, exceptional) online. Most of it is free. Yet in our capitalist culture, ‘free’ has two very different meanings. Things that are free are either so valuable that you can’t put a price on them (love being the classic example), or free (or at least very cheap) = valueless.

So where does poetry lie on the continuum of value? Perhaps nowhere. Rather, it is like light which has a dual nature, existing as it does as both wave and particle. For depending on the viewer (or reader), poetry is either incredibly valuable or completely valueless.

 

Save the cat! Buy a poetry book today! (Photo by George Bonev on Unsplash.)

 

Of course, publishers, as well as funding bodies and patrons, have tried to do their bit to support poets by publishing their work or giving them grants/patronage. Yet sales of poetry do not exactly generate royalties of any considerable amount (though there are and there have always been exceptions). And, as Paul Graham pointed out back in 2009, publishers may have thought they were selling content (stories or poems), but they were actually selling paper. Once the internet removed the ability to control access to content through a specific medium of delivery, they discovered readers were not nearly so willing to pay for it. Basically, you can get a poetry fix online every single day without ever having to give any money to the poet or publisher to receive it in paper form. So what is a poet to do?

 

The poetical reality

Poets that aren’t independently wealthy usually write around their non-writing day job (be that looking after small children, teaching, sloth racing, space rocket engineering, whatever) and accept that progress on their craft will be slower than it would be if they didn’t have to always show up for work. This is simply the way of life for the majority of poets. Others who have perhaps more of a financial cushion (such as a spouse with a good salary or savings or an inheritance etc.) and who already have a track record in publication, performance poetry and teaching poetry/writing may embark on ‘portfolio living’ whereby they have various poetry-related income streams which each bring in enough of a trickle of cash to allow them to drop the day job which, in turn, means they can spend more time focussing on their craft (and building an audience for their work). Talented individuals who are in the right place at the right time may well be given arts council funding or win awards.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that for all the problems the internet has brought, it has brought positives – poets can reach more people than ever before. The knack, though, is in finding and building that audience amongst the many other thousands, nay hundreds of thousands, of poets and writers who are also trying to catch the attention of readers.

To summarise: writing success (and hence greater financial reward) is usually a by-product of a focussed and continued dedication to improving one’s craft. So, see the positive in the poetry good news stories but, also, don’t take them too seriously. That way “poet envy” or “poetry status anxiety” lies. Have fun with the poem-making. Relish the challenge of getting your poems as good as they can be through re-working and editing. Read lots. (Of all kinds of poetry – contemporary, experimental, classical.) Go to poetry gigs. Also, get hold of a copy of Helena Nelson’s book, How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published, which is eminently wise, and read it from cover to cover. The kind of success that brings financial rewards may or may not come to you, but as long as you keep writing and focussing on your craft, the poetical gifts that you’ll be giving to the world will only get deeper and richer and better. Though, whatever happens, “don’t expect gratitude” – from the reader or the poem. Most of all, enjoy the “capturing” – that’s the one true gift that will keep on giving.

 

How to Capture a Poem

Look for one at midnight
on the dark side of a backlit angel
or in the space between a sigh

and a word. Winter trees, those
elegant ladies dressed in diamonds
and white fur, may hide another.

Look for the rhythm in the feet
of a waltzing couple one, two, three-ing
in an empty hall, or in the sound

of any heartbeat, the breath of a sleeper,
the bossy rattle of keyboards in offices,
the skittering of paper blown along.

You could find a whole line
incised into stone or scrawled on sky.
Words float on air in buses, are bandied

on street corners, overheard in pubs,
caught in the pages of books, sealed
behind tight lips, marshalled as weapons.

Supposing you can catch a poem,
it won’t tell you all it knows. Its voice
is a whisper through a wall, a streak of silk

going by, the scratch of a ghost, the creaks
of a house at night, the sound of the earth
vibrating in spring, with all its secret life.

You have to listen: the poem chooses itself,
takes shape and begins to declare what it is.
Honour the given, else it will become petulant.

When you have done your best,
you have to let it go. Season it with salt
from your body, grease it with oil from your skin.

Release it. It has nothing more to do
with you. You’re no more its owner
than you hold the wind. Never expect gratitude.

 

ANGELA TOPPING

First published in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh (edited by Rupert Loydell, Salt Publishing 2009). Many thanks to Angela for permission to include her poem here.

 

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