There are times when sniffing doesn't work, but there's almost always a good reason why, and in most cases you should be able to make allowances for this accordingly.
Take Hemingway. A great writer and all, but I ask you, did his greatness extend to his poetry? 88 of his poems are still in print. 10 of them made an appearance in his very first book - Three Stories and Ten Poems. Find a first edition of this in any condition, and you won't have to sell another book all year. Whatever you do, however, don't assume that this book's value has anything on God's green earth to do with the how good his poetry is. His prose is the coattail. I will say this: the quality of Hemingway's stuff was unusually even. Every last poem he wrote sucked.
For masochists, here's a stanza from a Papa poem titled "The Soul of Spain":
In the rain in the rain in the rain in the rain in Spain.
Sort of leaves one speechless, doesn't it?
Inevitably, there will be occasions when you come across a poet who's very highly regarded, even collectible, and yet you just don't see what the fuss is about. Often, this will be because of the aforementioned inaccessibility factor, but not always. Several years ago, I was fortunate to come across a half dozen or so Sara Teasdale first editions, most of them signed and inscribed. This definitely made my month as a bookseller, but frankly, this is a poet I just don't get - I mean, she doesn't plunge to Hemingwayesque depths, but nothing I've ever read of hers has at all popped off the page for me. And really, it seems very accessible.
My theory - and I realize that there are those who do get her - is that interest in Teasdale has more to do with her struggles as a woman growing up in a then male-dominated society (struggles later exploited by feminists for illustrative purposes) than anything else. Toss in lesbianism and death by suicide at the relatively tender age of 48, and the result is a backlit stage that, for some readers, very likely imparts a more illuminative glow to her poetry.
Sometimes, in the case of bad poetry, justice prevails, even though things weren't looking at all good for us lovers of good poetry at the outset. Maybe you're ahead of me here: Rod McKuen. In the 1970's and thereabouts, this dude was hot property. A singer and songwriter, he wrote, ahem, poetry as well (some of which doubled as song lyrics), and boy, did he have mass appeal. Some of his titles were bestsellers, and tons - and I do mean tons - of his stuff is still out there. Funny thing is, with the exception of a few signed, limited editions, you'd have to hold a gun to somebody's head to sell a McKuen title for more than a few bucks today. Pennies would be the more likely result, if it got rung up at all. Collectible he is not, and if you've had the sticky, oversweetened experience of reading some of his stuff, you'll know why. "A Cat Named Sloopy" is one of his most notoriously maudlin productions, and yours truly suffered through years of having the damn image of him climbing up stairs with his "arms full of canned liver and love" pop up into my mind at the most inexplicable moments. Time - and only time - has been the great healer.
The following blank spot is where I would've placed this poem for your perusal if a sudden gush of mercy hadn't got the better of me:
Next year, BookThink's Gold Edition will take a much more detailed look at profiting from poetry, but meanwhile, do try using your nose. Also, don't forget that most poets made their first appearances in magazines, journals, etc., with one or several poems. In the case of collectible poets, these issues will very often have significant value - that is, don't stop at books. Also, when selling poetry on eBay (or in other venues where you have the capability of doing this), include, if possible, an example of the poetry that affected you most intensely, even if it's only a line or two, and this may well snag a buyer as well.
Finally, I don't want to leave this topic without noting one magnificent exception to the Hemingway rule (no great novelist can write good poetry) - Thomas Hardy. The following is a profound, personal favorite:
A star looks down at me,
Here's a complete List of Library of Congress (formerly called)Consultants or Poet Laureate Consultants:
Joseph Auslander 1937-41
< to previous article
Questions or comments?