Sniffing Things Out in Sonnetland
A question for you literate types: who is the current Poet Laureate (Consultant) of the United States? Give up? Okay, I'll give you a pass on this one. He's only been in place a few months, and it wasn't like there was a televised inauguration or anything. So, what about his predecessor? Who was that? Should be easy. She won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize - a pretty big deal, I think - has been publishing major poetry for almost 40 years, and, well, shouldn't she be a household word?
Even if I told you what her name was ...
... I bet you couldn't pronounce it - and no, it doesn't rhyme with "duck." So often this is the fate of poets: relative obscurity despite significant literary achievement. Sure, a few Frosts, Sandburgs and Penn Warrens come into public view over the years, but they're the exception.
Fish bones walked the waves off Hatteras.
Yup, one of Louise's, and, I think, pretty compelling. In fact, lots of her stuff is. When you stop to think about it, good poetry is by its very nature compelling. It so often triggers an emotional response that leaves other forms of writing panting in dry, syntactical dust. Given this, wouldn't you think that poetry would perform brilliantly for booksellers? That it'd be something we could sell in spades? After all, this is exactly what we always have an eye out for: things that produce an emotional response and inspire buyers to get up off their wallets.
Ok, another, related question: how many books of poetry have you sold this year? 5? 2? None? If I closed my eyes and threw a brick into a crowd of booksellers, 9 times out of 10 I bet I'd conk somebody who hadn't sold a single one.
Is this costing us? Maybe. Glück published her first book of poetry, Firstborn, in 1968, and you'd be hard put to find a copy of an F/F first for under $100. The cheapest copy I could find in any edition was $18, and that was for a 1983 trade paperback reprint. Not bad for a writer you guys have never heard of and who only started publishing a few decades ago.
What's going on here? Is this some secret, mother-lode market sector that's just waiting for you to sink your axe-pick into?
Well, yes. And no.
In the first place, not everybody reads poetry, and the market for it is correspondingly limited in size - though not, take note, in depth. Second, an astonishing amount of bad poetry has been published over the centuries. Some bad poets were so prolific, so ubiquitous that their ineptitude has become almost celebrated. If there's a reigning poet laureate of bad poetry, Scottish bard William Topaz McGonagall would get more than a few nods. Take a deep breath and look at this:
Beautiful Moon, with thy silvery light,
There are 8 more stanzas of this crap (all of which were frequently recited on theater stages by the author to audiences who actually paid for the privilege), but I think you'll agree that one of them pretty much stuffs the bag. It takes inspiration to write poetry, even bad poetry, and McDonagall's muse, apparently, was every bit as fiery as that of fellow poet/countryman Robert Burns:
"The most startling incident in my life was the time I discovered myself to be a poet, which was in the year 1877. During the Dundee holiday week, in the bright and balmy month of June, when trees and flowers were in full bloom, while lonely and sad in my room, I sat thinking about the thousands of people who were away by rail and steamboat, perhaps to the land of Burns, or poor ill-treated Tannahill, or to gaze upon the Trossachs in Rob Roy's country, or elsewhere wherever their minds led them. Well, while pondering so, I seemed to feel as it were a strange kind of feeling stealing over me, and remained so for about five minutes. A flame, as Lord Byron has said, seemed to kindle up my entire frame, along with a strong desire to write poetry; and I felt so happy, so happy, that I was inclined to dance, then I began to pace backwards and forwards in the room, trying to shake off all thought of writing poetry; but the more I tried, the more strong the sensation became. It was so strong, I imagined that a pen was in my right hand, and a voice crying, 'Write! Write!'"
You're with me on this, right? This is one voice I wish I could've put a lid on - permanente. My guess is that this poor slob was doomed before he even hit the birthing table anyway - namely, at that watershed, "aha!" moment when pure inspiration sprung like a glittering jewel from his mother's lips: "Yes! That's it! I'll name him Topaz!"
One of the reasons there's so much bad poetry out there is that anybody's feeble, doddering great aunt can sit down and knock off a ditty about daisy chains or gossamer-winged insects in a matter of minutes. Do this 12 or 15 times, and voila, you've got yourself a book. Not that any publisher in their right mind would print it, but poetry, because it takes up so little space, can be shoved just about anywhere. And often is. Sometimes this stuff surfaces in a local newspaper at the end of the recipe column - you know, there'll be a few rhymed couplets about bluebirds and flowers and junk that we should pause in our days to observe and reverentially take note of. Sometimes it's in a literary magazine next to somebody's scrawled, amateurish idea of avant garde line art. And sometimes - much too often, in fact - it's met with so much aversion that it's rejected out of hand in spite of the poet's obvious hypersensitivity to criticism. Whereupon it marches straight to a vanity publisher, copies are printed in plain wraps with alarming economy, and the undiscovered poet distributes them, lovingly signed and inscribed, to hapless friends and relatives.
In this sense, of course, poetry doesn't sell, and booksellers should give it a wide berth. But there are enough high spots out there (some of them astronomically high) that payoffs can happen with regularity. As always, the trick is to know what to pick up and what to leave on the shelf.
Unfortunately, it's not always easy with poetry. There are flashpoints, yes, but more often than not they aren't in the visible spectrum. Poetry books frequently have a dull, ho-hum appearance, and opening them up doesn't help. Also, lots of them are self-published - a not overly fetching bookselling state to be in. In all, they don't ordinarily display attributes that leap. It helps to know specific poets to look for (and a complete list of U.S. Poet Laureates I've put at the end of the article is a good place to start) but I know how much you guys like to memorize stuff. Isn't there an easier way?
I think so.
Since poetry is both short and often formatted (in short, newspaper-like lines) so that a good number of words can be grabbed at a glance, it can usually be evaluated very quickly. And, the more you read, the better you'll be able to do it. Look at this poem:
An average joe comes in
If you've never read anything by Daniels before - or read much poetry at all - my guess is that you'll still see that this guy is good. Almost instantly. If the book you've found a good poem in is a first edition, gives no indication of massive numbers of books preceding it by the same author, and is priced to sell, in my opinion a buy is signalled. You won't get rich reselling Daniels' book, but certainly $20 or $30 is doable (not bad for 19-year-old book), and down the road I'd bet money that Daniels' first editions will steadily climb in value. He's got an enthusiastic following.
And so it is with so many poets, and, as a rule of thumb, the less recent the book, the higher the value. The approach of using your own evaluative powers to sniff out quality works well with poets up and down the line. If practiced over time, you'll develop a head-full of author/title-specific flashpoints that will stand you in very good stead as a bookseller. True, if you're not yet an adept reader of poetry, chances are you'll only be able to spot the more accessible, less difficult poets at first - that is, the ones who are most readable. But that doesn't mean some of these readable guys aren't bona fide powerhouses. Take a look at this:
question and answer
he sat naked and drunk in a room of summer
Immediately recognizable as good, in my opinion. Legendary beat poet Charles Bukowski published this in The Last Night of the Earth Poems very recently (1992), but first editions in F/F condition already command prices in excess of $50 or $100. Bukowski-wise, things only get better as we tramp further back into his publication history.
Questions or comments?