Salt are dead! No, not really – they’ve just decided to stop publishing collections by individual new poets. I don’t really know the reasons why, though I’ve just read a discussion in which people said it was a matter of money. Poetry doesn’t sell, and we all need to eat – there’s no shame in that.
But one of the points that was raised was the question of why poetry doesn’t sell. Here’s one of our own critics, Judi Sutherland, scratching her head on the subject:
So what has gone wrong? Why is poetry such a minority sport? Is there something wrong with the way poetry is taught in schools that turns people off? Is it about the way it is marketed and sold? Or is it such an acquired taste that it simply does not speak to anyone who hasn’t studied it in depth?
In this article, I am of course going to settle the argument once and for all.
(I should take a moment to say how grateful I am at times for the existence of blogs – without them, certain discussions might really draw on forever).
There is an obvious literary dichotomy between poetry and prose, and it’s common knowledge that prose sells much more (and much more easily) than poetry. The novel, then, is a good point of comparison: why don’t poetry books sell as much as novels?
Naturally, poetry and prose offer different experiences. One may then be led to wonder what it is, in the experience of the prose story, that appeals to an audience so much greater than the poetry book’s. In my opinion, one important thing to bear in mind is the way that the ‘experience’ offered by these two art-forms overlaps with that which is offered by other media. Place together a poem, a music video, a novel, and a film. Which one of these works has the most in common with which other? Technically, the poem and the novel are both forms of literature, while the music video and the film are both cases of visual media. At the same time, poetry has powerful, unbreakable ties to song (the two were born together) – and a music video is more of a scaffolding to a song than the other way round. From this point of view, furthermore, a novel is closer to a film, in that they are both essentially about telling a story (and stories do frequently cross over from book to film).
I believe that one of the reasons poetry sells so little is its failure to ‘cross over’ in the same way that novels do. Novels respond to a basic human need – a need to hear stories, which flicks many important switches in our psyche. Movies do exactly the same, though their ‘response’ to this need is given by different means and techniques. Therefore they do not compete with but complement each other, providing material that enriches both media. Poetry and the music industry, by contrast, do not communicate at all, except when some poet deplores pop culture in one way or another.
I think that poetry also responds to basic human needs; in particular it stages certain cathartic effects that we usually refer to as lyric or epic. One mistaken assumption that the poetry reader – unlike the prose reader – may be tempted to make, is that his / hers is the only medium that stages these effects. Songs, even the simplest pop songs, have a very similar function, and other media can reproduce those effects too. In fact, any form of representation that makes use of language – including prose! – can potentially be lyric or epic in parts. Unfortunately, poetry seems to deliberately cast itself in competition with other media that share in its function. It insists that it is doing something ‘different’ or ‘more’ – and admittedly it does: contemporary poetry couches its lyric parables in sophisticated performative arguments that touch on an enormous variety of subjects (though some, like identity and language, are particularly common). Songs generally make use of a much simpler language (expressed in what we know as lyrics), in part because they can share the burden of their emotive effect with the music.
As we mentioned, poetry and song were born together – at least in Western culture. In Classical Greece, verse was always performed with a musical complement, and early medieval poetry is rooted in the performances of musical troubadours. Metre is a quality that denotes poetry’s affinity with song, and its decline in popularity over the last century reflects the increasing distance that the art form has taken from what may be called its original or more popular function.
|The original poet|
One understands, then, why poetry is so hard to popularise by comparison with prose. The novel, in its many forms, is still essentially true to its original function, sharing it in equal means with the newer media. Poetry instead has opted to go ‘beyond’, and left that original task to other arts; pop songs are in many ways closer to ancient poetry than modern verse is. Indeed, poems that attempt to be ‘just’ lyrical (e.g. certain types of love poems, or a poem that speaks about, say, the sunset) are understood to be intellectually shallow, because they are doing nothing that we can’t already find in songs.
I should say at this point that I do not deplore the directions in which modern poetry has gone. I don’t think that poetry has lost its way, in part because it didn’t really ‘choose’ to go anywhere as much as it evolved, responding to how the world itself has changed, and in part because the new things it does are just as important. I would even go so far as to say that, in lyrical terms, poetry is a poorer art form than song, with less means of expression, and it is therefore natural that it should not (try to) compete with the bigger dog in the yard. Rather, poetry has a more openly critical rather than just lyrical role – one which awakens from rather than lulls into sleep.
The critical role, however, is neither as basic nor as immediately necessary as that of pure lyricism. We need lyric transport, the same way that we need to be told stories, simply to function as human beings. It’s as important to our psyches as eating and breathing are to our bodies. We do not ‘need’ to be critical, or at least not nearly as much. And even if we do, we must also bear in mind that poetry is not the only form of critical engagement with the world that there is (though it is certainly the one more closely engaged with language). Reading history and philosophy, for example, can be just as educational as reading poetry. This is not to say that history and philosophy can do the same things as poetry, of course, only that they share some of its functions, particularly the more intellectual ones.
Poetry is not popular, and in its current form, it can’t be. While the novel performs every aspect of its story-telling function, from reading in the airport to studying it at university, poetry has become a marginalised aspect of its original purpose; reading poetry is always also an intellectual engagement, one which transcends the pure lyrical enjoyment of a song you may hear on the radio as you drive to work. (This may not be the most charming example, but one thing that makes this argument empirically true for me is that I am unable to read poetry while sitting on the toilet, while I can happily leaf through a comic or a novel in the same condition. I am also unable to read poetry continuously for very long stretches of time, more than one or two hours; by contrast there are some novels I can take on a train journey and read non-stop for eight hours or more).
For what my own feelings are worth, the fact that poetry is not popular does not disturb me. Saying that we need more people reading poetry, or a better education on the art form, is a truism – we will always need more people in any art and better education on any subject, though we are probably in a preferable (or at least more democratic) condition now than we have been in hundreds of years, if ever. And I’m not particularly frustrated by the lack of attention that poetry is getting – if I’d wanted attention, I’d be doing something different in the first place. If anything, I am much more concerned by the lack of cultural variety within the community – too many poets seem to be coming from the same background or doing the same things. This may in itself be a deterrent to new readers – there is less range for people to identify themselves with poets, and I understand why a young man at school might find a more relatable model in a rapper from the suburbs than in a poet from a university. In any case, I don’t really see the benefits of having many more readers in poetry if they are not also quality readers. Other media have enormous consumer-bases, but they are plagued with stupidity and ignorance; it’s the price of their own popularity.
The argument that poetry should be put out to more people, or made more popular, starts from the assumption that poetry as we know it now can be expanded. This misses the point that expanding poetry changes it. There are few people reading poetry now because poetry is a really smart engagement with language and there aren’t so many people who are quite that smart or who are interested in language. This isn’t an elitist argument, it’s just a reflection on the normal way that people distribute their interests – and it would be vain and self-centred of us to think that poetry should be privileged over other potentially rewarding interests that are available in life. If you really want to bring your poetry to those who don’t usually read this stuff, then good luck. Just be careful you don’t do that by making your poetry more stupid.