"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Monday, 26 August 2013

Do People Still Buy Poetry?

Charlotte Mew
The news that the estimable CB Editions run by Charles Boyle is planning to wind itself up next year has been greeted with shock and regret by those who value individualistic, innovative and enterprising small press publishing.  Charles Boyle gives his reasons on his Facebook page and there have been, naturally, many comments.  But it seems to me that, in addition to the obvious factors such as the difficulty of the market, the reluctance of bookshops to host small press publications, the failure of public funding bodies to work out how to help small publishers in practical non-bureaucratic ways, there is a more fundamental issue: no one seems to be buying new poetry very much.  [Try sampling a Facebook parcel of poets' posts and see how rarely anyone reports breathlessly having bought someone's new collection and enjoyed it and is telling others to go out and buy it.  If poets themselves don't buy each other in numbers then we are in trouble.]

All poetry publishers, great and small, have been finding that sales are dropping though it is worth reminding ourselves that there never has been a golden age.  I used to admire the volumes in the Oxford University Press list in the 1970s and 1980s but I was told recently that the actual sales figures were surprisingly low.  I am reading at the moment the Collected Poems of Charlotte Mew published by Gerald Duckworth in 1953.  In the introduction by Alida Munro, wife of the Poetry Bookshop proprietor Harold Monro, she reveals that, exceptionally, 500 copies of Mew's debut collection The Farmer's Bride were published in 1929 when the Poetry Bookshop's normal print run was 250.  The Poetry Bookshop (and I have written elsewhere about this in my The Red Sweet Wine of Youth: The British Poets of the First World War and more recently Matthew Hollis has covered similar ground in his biography of Edward Thomas) was at the centre of British poetry in the years just before and during the First World War.  Anyone who cared about the future of poetry would know that the Imagists and Georgians championed by Monro were where it was at.  The history of modern poetry has confirmed this but...250 copies.

It sometimes feels that the poetry readership is finite, that all the marketing and tweeting in the world won't get it into four figures for a new book, but that can't be accepted passively so what do we do?  Is it that people are lazy and can't make the effort of special attention that poetry needs to yield up its pleasures?  I don't think we should blame the readers.  I would offer two explanations.  The first is that we lack proper criticism.  Strong, reliable, discriminating reviewers and critics (not eloquent puffs from the poet's friends masquerading as a book review) could help sort out the wheat from the chaff. I believe (maybe because I can't face the consequences of not believing) that if people are put in touch with the very best poetry being written they will buy it and read it as they still do, to some extent, in the case of quality literary fiction. But reviewing just now is partial, selective, lacking in critical authority and doesn't even perform the basic function of telling us what has come out.  Excellent new books of poetry sometimes receive no reviews at all. So unless you happen to be lucky enough to stumble on one of those books they remain silent phantoms in a warehouse or on the poet's Mum's mantlepiece. Some form of comprehensive monthly listing with short reviews would enable us at least to know what was out there.

Secondly, we need to improve the marketing and distribution of poetry, to get it into the bookshops.  Booksellers like Foyles need to wake up and start stocking small press poetry for starters.  The funds of the Arts Council for England, Literature Wales etc need to be used to set up some sort of network for small poetry presses, a kind of affordable Inpress that you didn't have to pay to join that was the equivalent of Italian olive growers banding together as co-operatives to market their produce.  A pilot project, some hard-headed research, some practical scheme for helping poets and their readers get in touch with each other, would be far more helpful than individual grants to poets.

In the end if the poetry being offered to readers is no good then they can't be blamed for declining to sample it but I believe that there is enough decent poetry being published to tempt them if they can be enabled to locate it.  Otherwise poetry will die from neglect.  And that, we can all agree, is unthinkable.