The Vanishing Poetry Section

booksI’ve been noticing a trend. My sampling is unscientific but others are welcome to chime in. I went Christmas shopping with the family today and stopped at my favorite Montpelier bookstore (two used and one new) — Bear Pond Books. Here’s what I can tell you: the poetry section is evaporating. I mentioned the fact to the bookstore clerks but (unsurprisingly perhaps) they didn’t really want to talk about it. I notice the same behavior in other bookstores. Curiously, even when it was patently obvious that the poetry section was a pitiful shadow of its former self, the store employees acted as though they were utterly unaware of it. I can imagine two reasons why. First, what business wants to admit that they’re losing business or under selling? Second, perhaps other customers have noticed the same trend? Maybe owners are fed up with having to explain to those who actually buy poetry that their two percent of the public does not a profit make.

Whatever the reason, facts are facts. Bear Pond Books used to have a glorious poetry section. There were some 18 shelves stuffed with poetry – about 70 square feet of wall space, and these weren’t books sitting on the shelves with their covers displayed. No. Spines only. Today, the bottom shelves are empty. Three of the shelves are nominally empty. They are filled with books facing forward — seven or eight books to a shelf. In all, there were maybe 4 shelves worth of poetry. I’ve noticed the same trend in a variety of local bookstores. The poetry section at the Norwich Bookstore (also locally owned) could fit in two shoe boxes. Borders went out of business but before it did (and long before bankruptcy was being contemplated), it’s poetry section shrank from a glorious dozen down to three or four shelves — stock stuff: greeting card verse, a handful of contemporary poets curated without a shred of conviction, and yellowing anthologies. The poetry section died an ugly death.

The only store still offering anything substantial is the Dartmouth Bookstore (Barnes & Noble in disguise). Hanover is a college town and a bookstore catering to Dartmouth College can’t respectably scant the “literature” section even if the books aren’t selling. Academia doesn’t trouble itself with unseemly considerations like marketability. They don’t have to. All they have to do is double tuition rates every few hours.

And that brings me to my posts Let Poetry Die and Let Poetry Die: Redux. (The latter being a rewrite of the former.) Much to the horror of some, I suggested that poets survive or starve on the basis of public reception — market forces. As it is, I argued, poets have to answer to no one but themselves and they have proven themselves utterly incapable of assessing (or unwilling to assess) merit in poetry. I have to admit (and this will also horrify some readers) that I’m taking satisfaction in the poetry section’s slow and ugly death. If this is what it takes to weed the garden, then I’m all for it. Many publishers will say that they publish poetry not because it sells but because in some soft and obscure cockle of their heart they feel obligated. This mercy-publishing has to stop. There’s a broad swath of poets, an era (from moderns to the present) that needs to fade into the same oblivion as the Victorians. We might be seeing that. Finally.

My 2¢: I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m ready for some fresh air. It’s not that I want poetry to die, but that I’m done with the same tired names. Maybe publishers will actually start looking for poets who sell. If they can’t find any, then I’m okay with that. Somehow, to me, that’s less irritating than 70 square feet of obligation and good intentions. We all know where the latter leads. It’s the devil’s paving.

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6 responses

  1. Why do you think publishers can discern talent? Haven’t they been an incestuous part of the problem to date, along with the writing academies and universities, promoting their own, despite the public’s justified indifference?

    • //Why do you think publishers can discern talent?//

      I don’t think it’s a given that they can; but publishers have brought us the great books too. Being able to sniff out the gold from the dross is how they survive. If that means they forgo poetry altogether (and leave it to the poets to publish themselves) then that might be just the thing.

  2. Your analysis is excellent. Poetry is susceptible to the tyranny of the market. Market forces determine the size of the market and the distribution of the market. But individual preferences also determine the market. When it comes to literature, I think people mostly will choose the literature that matches their natural factor endowments. I also believe that people will consume the product with the lowest marginal cost of consumption. In other words, people will pick and eat the low hanging fruit. When it comes to poetry, poetry comes at a high cost of consumption which is out of the reach of most consumers. In this digital age where video can be watched on a phone, consumers will choose to watch videos before reading. And when they read, they will choose to read fiction before non fiction. This represents a change in demand for poetry. If market forces are truly at work, the price of poetry books should be dropping. I’m not sure how to measure this.

    • Hi Mike, I’m not sure how to measure it either. I do think poetry’s response to the public (perhaps until recently) has been greatly distorted by all kinds of influences that have nothing to do with demand. I suspect that the only way the price of poetry can fall is if it’s forced to move to electronic publishing (and out of the publisher’s hands). Paper and ink costs money and a publisher’s time normally needs to be recouped. These probably aren’t happening and so we see the disappearance of the brick and mortar poetry section. My own poetry and blog is a case in point. It’s free and it’s self-published. By my own standards, my poetry is a failure. However, I haven’t been playing on a level playing field. I don’t have an MFA. I’m not affiliated with academia. I have no connections. I wouldn’t mind competing (and I do mean competing) with any poet out there if they too were thrown to you wolves. :-)

  3. Hi, there, “upinvermont.”

    Seems to me like you’re trying to put a good face on a bad thing. Consider this: There are more humans alive on the planet at this instant, than the collective sum of all humans who have lived previously – all the way back to Moses (or, the Greeks – take your pick). T he lessons and wisdom of the past are in danger of being lost forever, as humanity loses its way in a sea of present moments. I suppose haiku might survive on twitter. Whatever.    

    • I would be tempted to consider your argument if not for the world wide web. There may be more humans on the planet than at any time but never has so much information, including the lessons and wisdom of the past, been so easily and readily available. Ten or twenty years ago finding the play Gorboduc would have been no small task. Presently, all I have to do is link to it and any reader anywhere in the world can easily explore the work — the first to be written in Iambic Pentameter.

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