I don't remember which of my professors once said "Poetry is the heart of literature" or words to that effect, but I agree. But, if one accepts that as true, there's no small irony in all the hand wringing some of us writers, editors, and readers can do over the status of poetry in society. Since I opened the first issue of The Courtship of Winds some fifteen years ago with such hand wringing, I'll reprise the theme for this rebirth of the journal.
As was appropriate for the inaugural issue of an online magazine, I was particularly interested in whether the digital revolution could be an aid in the ongoing effort to make poetry matter to more people. My answer in 2015 to some of the technology-related questions I posed in 2000 is a clear "Yes." I'm writing this on a tablet. My preferred mode of reading is on a Kindle, having concluded that not only did Jeff Bezos succeed in reproducing in a digital device the book-reading experience, but also, for me, one paper-like screen at a time is the best, most focused way to read -- not the disruptive, distracting experience Sven Birkets and others prophesied.
I have no idea how many more online literary journals there are today than there were in 2000, but I would venture a guess that the growth of digital publishing in general has been substantial. This in turn must mean more writers finding a portal for their imaginations and insights. However deep and impactful the digital revolution, the question of how much poetry (or any non-commercial type of writing) is read and matters remains. The fact that my heart leaps at seeing a construction worker step off from the work site to recite lines from Song of Myself in a video for Pinsky's "Favorite Poem" project is both good news and bad: The "Favorite Poem" project is evidence poetry matters beyond the halls of academia, but my disproportionate pleasure in hearing those outside of academia talk about a poem that matters to them means poetry is still too tied to schools and colleges.
"Death of ..." talk (death of the novel, of literature -- whatever) can be cheap. Nevertheless, some signs can be unsettling. The announcement by a British publisher that they would no longer publish single-author volumes of poetry was one such sign for some:
As figures show tumbling sales for poetry, authors including poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy are mourning news that one of the UK's most energetic independent publishers can no longer afford to publish individual collections.
After releasing more than 400 poetry collections, many by debut authors, and launching scores of careers, Salt said earlier this week that it will be focusing on poetry anthologies in the future. "We've seen our sales [of single-author collections] decline by over a quarter in the past year, and our sales have halved in the past five years," said director Chris Hamilton-Emery. "It's simply not viable to continue doing them unfunded … We have tried to commit to single-author collections by funding them ourselves, but as they have become increasingly unprofitable, we can't sustain it."
This is followed by fittingly dreary numbers:
Over the past two years, according to BookScan, the three best-selling poetry titles have all been by Duffy – The Christmas Truce (38,181 copies sold), The Bees (29,716) and The World's Wife (19,933). The rest of the top 10 is made up of three anthologies, The Odyssey, the Pam Ayres Classic Collection – and two more Duffy collections. The collected Philip Larkin comes in 13th place (10,152), behind more anthologies, and Seamus Heaney's Burial at Thebes in 14th (9,253). Even a prize-winning poet such as Sharon Olds has sold only 7,399 copies of her collection Stag's Leap, while John Burnside's Black Cat Bone sold 5,544 copies.
To put this in context, last week in just seven days Martina Cole's The Life sold 23,821 copies.
It's hard to stare down such statistics, even though it is very true to say, "Yes, but poetry matters mightily to its few readers." Of course, these sorts of numbers don't constitute the long view -- the number of readers of Seamus Heaney or Walt Whitman over fifty, one hundred, four hundred years. (Note on digital evidence: The tablet/program I'm using just supplied "Whitman" after I wrote "Walt" before I wrote the second W.)
One other challenge for those invested in poetry and its publication is the touchy issue of quality. Of Whitman's merit there's no question. Leafing through a contemporary literary mag, whether online or in hard copy, one has sometimes the glazing-over experience that is likely a tip off that one isn't reading great literature. I may decide that at a particular time I'm not alert enough to read T.S. Eliot or Zagajewski, but there's no possibility of my wondering if I've read something of substantial meaning and value.
To go any further down the "state of poetry" road is dangerous. It would be interesting to do a study of some sort of a representative selection of literary journals in order to hazard a guess about the durability and value of the work published. Even had I done such analysis, making a definite statement would probably be reckless. The game is played, of course, and is interesting and harmless as long as everyone recognizes it for what it is. A while back, Anis Shivani in the Huffington Post got several "major" american poets to play, asking them who the most important contemporary poet was. The only name that got multiple mentions was John Ashbery. Yet Ashbery remains problematic for many readers and some professionals. When I was in grad school (ages ago) in London and excitedly told the professor who was the post-grad tutor that Ashbery was going to give a reading, his smiling response was "His poetry has become no clearer." What does it matter in the matter of how much poetry matters that this is the comment of a distinguished academic on a key figure (like him or not) of contemporary poetry? "Unclear," as my daughter likes to say. I can only be clear about my attempt in The Courtship of Winds to publish work of lasting value.
William V. Ray
1 Flood, Alison. "Salt Abandons Single-author Collections amid Poetry Market Slump." The Guardian. N.p., 24 May 2013. Web. 5 Nov. 2014.