Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Poetry and Value

The real question is why so many readers (poets, critics, journalists, etc.) expect poetry to carry the burden of cultural repair. No one writes jeremiads deploring the novel (or at least The New York Times and Harper’s choose not to publish them), presumably because popular novels, like commercial films, carry their weight, economically. So the real question seems to be: why can’t poets write “economically viable” poems (yes, I’m citing the black character protesting outside a bank in the Michael Douglas film, Falling Down)? Or as one of my students put it to me, why can’t poets write poems as good as a Jay-Z song? That brings me to performance poetry.

In fact, performance poetry has exploded in popularity. It’s difficult to find a metropolitan area that doesn’t feature a bevy of performance poetry and spoken word events. You’d think critics and traditional poets would be shouting for joy that so many people show an interest in poetry, even “that” kind of poetry. Instead, the higher the pile of unread books and chapbooks of poetry—see Seth Abramson and Stephen Burt for two critics who have expressed frustration at not being able to cover it all–the more vitriolic the screeds. What is that all about?

-- Tyrone Williams, "Why Can’t Poets Write Poems as Good as a Jay-Z Song? : Posthumanism and Poetry" at Harriet

According to Nielsen BookScan, 2012 saw a 15.9% drop in sales of single-authored poetry collections, leaving the total UK market for poetry books worth only £6.7m that year. No poet is in it for the money, but publishers—to some extent at least—have to be, and they are of course a vital link in the literary culture.

Moreover, a good poetry book deserves to be valued as much as a good novel, or good non-fiction. As Heminge and Condell put it, when presenting the Shakespeare First Folio to readers in 1623: ‘The fate of all Bookes depends upon your capacities: and not of your heads alone, but of your purses’. Even a ‘gift’ culture – sometimes held up as an alternative to the market economy of contemporary publishing—depends upon the acknowledgement of value.
-- Gregory Leadbetter, "Poetry Abides," in The Bookseller

1 comment:

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

I enjoyed the recent essay by Tyrone Williams on Harriet called ‘Amateur Poets and the Academy’. He says: “Specifically, amateur poets usually have jobs outside academia, do not blog (are not blogged about), and, most important, usually subscribe to a poetics generally viewed by professional poets and critics as anachronistic.”

What is interesting here is the term “professional poets”. If this isn’t the oxymoron of the century then I don’t know what is!

Here are some ‘amateur poets’ you may have heard of who, by virtue of having been amateurs, originally self-published:

Alexander Pope
William Blake
Walt Whitman
E. E. Cummings
Ezra Pound
T.S. Eliot
Edgar Allan Poe
Robert Bly
Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Robinson Jeffers
Alfred Lord Tennyson
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Robert Service
Carl Sandburg

If there had been no ‘amateur’ poets, we would have no canon at all. Oh, and can you name any “professional” poets writing today that posterity may recall?