I think we can all agree that poetry is “a good thing”. The world would be a less interesting place without it. But just because we can all get behind the idea of poetry, that doesn’t mean that we need worry about pay rates for poets. Amanda Nadelberg at Literary Hub considers the “problem”. Establishing a fund to support indigent poets isn’t an idea you can characterize as “bad”, but it sounds unlikely to catch on and become part of many people’s charity planning.

I think most people’s image of poets doesn’t include riches. Not that poets deserve to be poor, but we don’t think of money as the motivator. I doubt if anyone ever went in for poetry for financial reasons. You rather assume that the garret is more likely that the stately home. I would imagine even Lord Byron was a bit surprised at how much money he could make from his verse.

T. S. Eliot may be guilty of loose writing when he states “modern poetry is supposed to be difficult”. What he means is that it’s reputed/said to be difficult, not that it ought to be difficult. Of course we tend to give the second, more conventional reading to the clause and wheel it out to bash modern poetry. When J. H. Prynne, having had one of his poems read to him, responded that he didn’t understand it either, he was probably expressing his disdain for the question and lack of interest in “explication” rather than a literal inability to understand what he’d written. Of course such hostages to fortune should probably not be given in a world where the whole concept of modernity, and its tendency to self-reflexivity is always subject to sallies from defenders of the “faith”.

The best-selling poet in America is apparently Rumi, whose poems have sold in the millions.* However waiting 800 years for the gravy train is not a really great strategy. This year’s Nobel Prize winning poet is Bob Dylan: quite a few copies of whose words have been bought by his hearers. Rap is poetry. And popular. We have to acknowledge that there are in fact quite a lot of people who are making surprisingly large sums from poetry. Here’s a story about three poets who can get $225 an hour for writing haikus at office parties and other events. Apart from minstrelsy, online poetry does seem to be the (financial) way to go. This Publishing Perspectives piece tells of poets who have leveraged their Instagram or Tumblr followings into 100,000 copy print runs for their books. Haiku does seem to be a favored form for these successful poets — maybe it’s something to do with immediacy of impact. But of course social media is the key factor. “Out of the 10 best selling poetry books in the U.S., three are by poets who built followings on social media, including Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur and Memories by Lang Leav.”

So, Ms. Nadelberg, the problem with poetry pay seems, surprise, surprise, to be exactly the same as the problem with fiction pay. Either you’re a Jasper Milvain or an Edwin Reardon. You pays your money and you makes your choice.

ENVOI.  Ms Nadelberg’s story contains a link to what she bills as The state of poetry in England. This piece takes publishers to task for abandoning poetry, citing specifically Oxford University Press’ closure of its poetry list in 1998. It really doesn’t matter what any government minister may have said, publishers have no obligations as bearers of culture. David Howarth was simply wrong when he “labelled the financial grounds of the decision ‘barbaric’ and argued that the dropping of the poetry list equated to an ‘erosion of standards’.” A university press has a more specific mission than a commercial press, whose obligation is merely to avoid squandering its shareholder’s money: a university press exists to further research and education as carried on in its parent institution. Poetry is no longer central to the mission of any university (if it ever was). OUP published poetry way beyond any date where to do so was justifiable. Losing money on their poetry list was just diverting money away from their proper activities. Sorry if this sounds harsh: but it’s true.


* Given my oft-stated opinions about translation, this is notable also for being in translation!