Let me start by saying, right up front, that publishing poetry is generally not a road to riches. Most of us write poetry for reasons other than its hot selling power. Of all genres, poetry is probably the hardest to sell. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case, but I’ll hazard an educated guess that it’s because there’s a kind of misconception that poetry isn’t an engaging read (not suitable for the beach or an airplane), isn’t an easy read (the “highbrow fallacy”), and that it isn’t going to improve you in any way (unlike self-help books, which will cure your diseases, make you slimmer, and attract lots of good stuff to you). Don’t say I didn’t warn you. So why bother? Why not just write a diet book? Here are two reasons why poetry matters.
1. “it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.”
That is, as Auden said so beautifully in “In Memory of WB Yeats”, poetry connects us in ways that go deeper than any other words can. It endures, and continues to move us, in the writing and in the reading, regardless of literary trends, political activity, and its overall saleability.
2. Because “men die miserably every day
of what is found there.”
That is, as William Carlos Williams said so beautifully in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”, there’s an inherent power in poetry to move beyond the boundaries that divide us; to jump over the cliffs between us; and move beyond those lines of race, class, age, and above all, our innate fears, and reach a place of common humanity. Life is busy, and it’s so easy to forget to look into one another’s eyes; to talk in convenient syllables and soundbites rather than sincerely; to miss what matters under the big pile of what’s urgent. In other words, and let me say this very clearly, good poetry is important. It’s important to our inner life, and where it succeeds, it succeeds hugely, becoming lodged in our consciousnesses. Like the two poems above, which I’ve carried around in my head since I came across them as a young teen, good poetry sticks with the reader. It continues to be recited and cited and in its own beautifully viral way, changes who we are and how we see our lives and our world.
So poetry matters, and we need to keep reading and writing it, even if it isn’t an easy sell, because it will be with us long after the South Beach Diet has been forgotten. But how, as a poet, do you become “lodged?” How do you promote your poetry so others read it?
Firstly, remember that good poetry is as pleasurable to read as it is to write. If you write it, you have a responsibility to read the best work of others. You’ll be a better poet as a result and who knows, you might start a trend. If you don’t know where to start, try Dorothy Porter, Billy Collins, Charles Simic, Les Murray, or Luke Davies. Those are a few of my favourites, and writers whose work is consistently beautiful, passionate, modern, relevant and accessible. Or try the classics, Williams, Frost, Yeats, Auden, Plath, Brooks. Try purchasing an anthology. Black Inc do an annual anthology of Australian poetry (Best Australian Poems 2008 was edited by Peter Rose), Scribner does one for American poetry, (Best American Poetry 2008 was edited by Charles Wright) and there are similar books for Canada and England. Or try a literary journal – there are plenty to choose from. Great poetry will inspire great poetry, even if you write nothing but prose. The perfectly chosen word is always worth reading, and emulating.
Secondly, don’t limit yourself to the printed page. Poetry isn’t sacred. It began as our earliest oral tradition and continues to be most effective delivered orally. Sing, dance, recite, move about, use props. Think Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith. You don’t even have to have a good voice– just confidence (easily feigned), and some performance acumen. Look your audience in the eye, remember they’re on your side, and connect. But just because you’re adding props, music, and chutzpah doesn’t mean you can use cliché, ineffective imagery, or be ridiculous. I once saw a poet perform his work while eating a banana. It wasn’t pretty. There’s a fine line between great work and a fun performance. Find it and walk it. Don’t forget to bring books to sell with you either, because you’ll sell more work at a live performance than anywhere else. Then you can capitalize on the buzz with websites, blogs (like this one), reviews of other poet’s work, and samples.
Finally, network. Poets should support one another. Writing poetry doesn’t need to be secretive, lonely, or tortured. We should buy, review, and talk up each others’ work (where deserved); and if you find something good, by all means, shout about it. Collaborate, coordinate, cross-promote, and above all, celebrate. Because great poetry, and by that I mean words that sear and sting and open every pore, are cause for celebration. You can take that to the bank.