Some Thoughts on Supporting Poetry

by Dick Allen

“It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men [and women] die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”—William Carlos Williams

To: Contemporary Poetry Workshop Students:

1) Buy individual books and chapbooks of contemporary poetry, at least one a month if possible. If you further wish to support poetry publishing, a terrifically good way to do this will be to order directly from the publisher of the book or chapbook, rather than through Amazon or Barnes & Noble. If poets don’t buy books of poetry, how can we expect others to do so?

2) To fully know and feel another poet’s work, it’s necessary to read books and chapbooks by the poet. Often poems read differently in the context of other poems by the poet, especially in the context of a collection—when facets may reflect from other facets. As a corollary, rather than exchange books of your poems for books of poems by other poets, buy the book of poetry with the assurance that the other poet will buy your book. Thus, you’ll be supporting poetry publishing in another way.

3) Ask your local public libraries and college and university libraries and even perhaps public school libraries to regularly order and display books of contemporary poetry. A first guideline to encourage them might be to ask these libraries to make sure they have available the current year’s Pulitzer Prize winning book of poems, and probably the current year’s National Book Award book of poems, the current year’s National Book Critics Circle Award book of poems, the current year’s Poets Prize book of poems, the current National Poet Laureate’s most recent book, a book of poetry by your state’s Poet Laureate, your town’s Poet Laureate, and the like.

4) Give books of contemporary poetry as gifts, especially in lieu of or in addition to the nearly obligatory bottle of wine presented to the host of a dinner party or evening social gathering. When possible, choose poetry books with poems that might particularly “fit” the host, will particularly appeal to the friend or relative. Optimum is to introduce a book of contemporary poetry into a house that hitherto fore lacked one, perhaps the home of a dentist friend or office supervisor relative. Even if the host doesn’t read the book, it might be that her or his children will discover and read it…and become poets themselves. In our time, often it’s a book by Billy Collins that will get those who’ve never read contemporary poetry to begin to explore it. Sometimes Ted Kooser, or Rita Dove or Tony Hoagland or Linda Pastan….

5) Give books of contemporary poetry, thoughtfully inscribed by you, in lieu of cards or with cards and other gifts, to friends and relatives and their children at high school and college graduations. It’s also a fine thing to give books of well-reviewed children’s poetry as gifts to young children of friends and relatives. Who does not love X.J. Kennedy’s poems for children? Or the Bat Poet poems by Randall Jarrell? Do you know that America has a national Young People’s Poetry Laureateship?

6) A useful way to think about books of poetry is to compare them to CDs. A CD may have 12-15 songs on it. A small book of poetry may have 30-50 poems in it. Just as good songs will be played over, so good poems will be read over and over. If you think of poems as songs, you could think of getting more than twice the number of “songs” for the same approximately $15.00 or slightly more. Buying twelve CDs a year hasn’t been (particularly in the heyday of CDs) much of a hardship. Another way to think about buying and keeping books of poetry is as a collection, even a rare book collection, to proudly and lovingly display.

7) When you attend a poetry reading and like what you’ve heard, always buy at least one of the poet’s books (assuming they’re there for sale). If you already have the poet’s book(s), buy another one and use it for one of the gift occasions mentioned above. As an aside, I once saw a very noted poet nearly in tears because—after a splendid reading by him—only two people in an audience of over 100 bought his new and reasonably priced book.

8) It’s a duty and a point of honor to support poetry magazines and other magazines that devote a good portion of their pages to contemporary poetry. Subscribe to 5-10 of these magazines annually. It should go without saying that you subscribe to magazines that have published your own work.

9) It might also go without saying that poets read compulsively the works of past poets. But when one reads an individual book of poems by, say, Edna St. Vincent Millay or Phyllis Wheatley or Dante Gabriel Rosetti or Christina Rosetti, or Robert Frost or Anthony Hecht how different the experience is from reading individual poems in an anthology or on the Internet. Reading such a book is most valuable for students beginning to write and attempt publishing poetry. Otherwise, there’s a tendency to see only the great or near-great poems by a given poet and maybe even give up right then and there. 🙂

10)Wendy Cope, The Guardian: “Well, it’s true that there are poets who are happy to see their work anywhere and everywhere, just for the sake of the attention. But for those of us who make a little bit of money from royalties and permission fees, and depend on that income, it’s different. Free publicity has no value if all that happens is that even more people download your poems from the internet without paying for them.

     In the long run – if our poems survive into the long run – we’ll be in no position to benefit from royalties or permission fees. All poets hope that their work will outlive them. I’m no exception. Even so, I sometimes feel a bit annoyed by the prospect of people making money out of my poems when I’m too dead to spend it.”

11)There will be no stopping people getting poetry from the Internet, for free. But it’s important to stress that the experience of reading a poem on the Internet is different from reading a poem in a poet’s book, or even in a poetry anthology, for that matter. Many of us, worried about the future of Journalism, are coming around to the idea of supporting it by subscribing to newspapers on the Internet as well as in print. There are parallels to be made between supporting Journalism by paying for it and supporting poetry by paying for it—by buying books of poetry, by taking out paid subscriptions to poetry magazines. Or, in a Capitalist society, is poetry worth paying for? Is it of monetary value? Why? A friend asks, “How much do you pay to see a Broadway show? To go to a movie? To eat out at a half-way decent restaurant with friends? How much do you pay to attend a sporting event, or a concert? Compared to costs for these (and many other things on which we spend money), isn’t paying for poetry actually asking for a really paltry sum each year?

12)From a fellow poet: “I think we tend to accept the Poetry is Dead or at Least Dying motif too easily. Most of our friends and/or neighbors don’t read poetry, so we (and I’m including myself here, strongly) don’t talk about poetry to them. Shouldn’t we be sending to them as well as each other the great poem we just read on one of the daily sites, especially if it coincides even slightly with one of their interests? Or maybe drop a poetic quote or two into the conversation? Or even let them (our closer friends) know how excited we are over something we ourselves have just written? If we don’t, we’re elitists, just preaching to the choir.”

13)Regarding this, yes, if I gladly listen to my friends talk of football, and cars, and favorite restaurants, and politics, and an entire host of other subjects, what is it that might keep me from injecting some poetry into the conversation?

-Dick Allen, with thanks to CD, LNA, MLT, MS, TAA, October, 2015

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