To be a poet is a condition, not a profession. ~ Robert Frost
It’s possible to become rich as a novelist, though few manage it. It’s possible to make a good living doing a number of different types of writing, although to paraphrase a line from Elmore Leonard, the kind of writing that pays the best is ransom notes. However, if you’re a poet, you’re more likely to stroll through a revolving door with skis on your shoulder than you are to make any money at poetry. In a way, that’s liberating. To be a poet means that you can engage with your art and be virtually free of any worries about marketability or reputation. You’ll never have to worry about selling out, because nobody’s buying.
Maybe that seems harsh to say so directly, but it’s not meant as a criticism (at least not of poets). It’s meant as an observation, one that was brought home to me again today. I was talking to one of the professors I support as a technology consultant (my actual job title is computer technician, but I get asked about everything, so tech consultant it is), when I noticed a shiny new book in his office. I leaned over to read the title, and was surprised to find it was a new book by Sherman Alexie, an author whose work I always enjoy.
My surprise deepened when I flipped through the pages and found it was a collection of poetry. I didn’t know Alexie wrote poetry, though it’s not surprising in retrospect. I glanced at the copyright page, a habit I picked up during my years of working in libraries, and was not surprised to find the book was put out by a small press. Why? Economics. Mass audience don’t read poetry, so no publishing house is going to take a flyer on printing a book that won’t get read. Small presses can do that because at their scale of production, they can make money (or lose it slower, in some cases) on runs of 1000 or so copies. Even writers like Alexie, who is critically respected and fairly successful (his work has even been the basis for a couple of films), can’t sell poetry. I doubt even Stephen King could sell a collection to a major publisher, except as maybe a novelty book.
But why is that? While poetry has never been a big seller, it used to be that you could at least make a public reputation as a poet. Artists from Whitman to Longfellow to Eliot were primarily poets, and gained a measure of public renown for their work. How many modern poets can you name who are known for poetry? I know a few that are working and getting published—one of the other professors I work with seems to have no trouble getting his poems to appear in the New Yorker, for example. Public recognition for poetry, however, is far more elusive. I get to Maya Angelou (who is most famous for a memoir anyway), and I’ve run out of names. I can’t even tell you who the U.S. poet laureate is—a job filled in the past by the likes of Robert Penn Warren, Robert Frost and James Dickey—without resorting to Google. (It’s Kay Ryan. Yeah, I’ve never heard of her either.)
I suspect a number of reasons behind poets’ and poetry’s general invisibility to the public. It can be more challenging to read, more demanding of thought and attention, but you can say that about many novels and novelists (Umberto Eco and Thomas Pynchon, just to name two). I think poetry is harder in some ways to teach people to read critically and discuss. With novels, even if you’re thick as a brick with regards to symbol and theme, you can usually at least recognize the narrative elements. If you take away the literary discussions and merits of, say, Moby Dick, you’ve still got a story to tell. Do the same thing with The Waste Land, and you’ve got 130 pages of gibberish. Even narrative poetry requires a little more work than prose. As a result, poetry is often thought of as too hard to enjoy, too much work to get into.
However, there’s another reason I think poetry is somewhat shunned, at least with respect to novels and other prose. No matter what the subject matter, poetry can be (and usually is) far more personal. With poetry—more so than other written works—the rules can be bent or discarded, leaving only the words and the white space for the poet to use. Novels and stories are expressed in sentences and paragraphs, units that have certain rules that most everyone follows. The basic units of poetry are words themselves, and they can be flung and combined in a number of ways that most prose can’t touch. In poetry, you can achieve an intimacy that can be shocking. Ever hear of romantic novellas or love short stories? I bet not, yet romantic poetry and love poems are familiar to most of us. This ability to arrow past defenses, to really climb inside people, is something that poetry does extremely well, and that makes people nervous.
Of course, this is all just a theory. Maybe poetry just sucks.
Poetry, like the moon, does not advertise anything. ~ William Blissett