Poetry doesn’t seem to sell, although there are hundreds upon hundreds of poets creating it. I would venture to guess that there are at least twice as many poetry contests out there than fiction contests. Everywhere I turn I see the smiling, slightly abashed face of a poet.
Why do you write poetry? I ask them. Because, they say, it helps me talk about the abyss. And when I talk about it, I don’t have to think about it as often. That sounds advantageous for both reader and writer, I tell them.
So why do books of poetry never sell at my bookstore?
Whenever somebody buys a book of poetry at my store I feel I have to congratulate him or her and then we start talking. A lot of the time, I discover, the book of poetry which the person has purchased is or will become a remedy, an analgesic, a salve, a poultice, a bandage, a funerary stone, or a hopefully uplifting gift to somebody who is suffering or bereaved.
Fiction isn’t necessarily as compelling an antidote as poetry. I think my speculation that fiction sells more than poetry might have something to do with suffering and loss. The fact that people don’t want to explore their own frailties and potential infirmities and foreseeable despair. In fiction there tends to be characters who can live out all the suffering for you. They are not you, at least not thoroughly.
But poetry has that strange way of reflecting every sad inch of you.
Yet if we consider poetry as less a morbid exploration of these bleak realities and more of a redemptive confrontation with them, then poetry will start selling like The Power Of Now or The Secret. Poems, instead of all those smug, unrealistic books on self-deification, will be the signposts directing us down navigable routes through thickets of pain and wastelands of loss.
I was inspired to share these unrehearsed thoughts after I read a couple recent articles about the nature of poetry and grief.
“That’s what I’m after. A mournful song, yes, but I want an elegy that is sculpture, I want it big and abstract, or like a dance piece, silent and explosive, or I want it to descend on me like waves, or be built of straw with outlook points like peaks of meringue; I want to evoke the beloved in some surprising way, having become light, or spun of contrails. I want to sculpt a poem for this brother, the second I have lost, the second brother.
The second article, however, is only available in the print edition of the most recent Poets And Writers: The Art Of Reading John Donne: The Sick Genius Of Remorse by William Giraldi. Giraldi talks about the crushing despair that beset him after his father’s untimely death and how he rediscovered the poetry of John Donne as a way to blaze his way out of the darkness. Donne, of course is responsible for such lines as “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee/Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so. . ” It’s an extremely moving article and can convince you that delving deep into any poet can unearth treasures of perseverance and terrible beauty.
I think, whether the genre is fiction or poetry or lyric essay, that the undefinable yet unmistakable trace of the poetic grants us that hard-earned dignity to be mere mortals struggling in a broken world. I think that’s what Donne was saying and Shakespeare and Sappho too.
The poetic can show us unflinchingly what’s already ruined and what will be burned at some later date but the fact that we can talk about it at all, that we can wrestle down words to express the inexpressible is liberating and humanizing.
(Recently, I burst out crying while (finally) reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road which to me is one long poem about salvaging light from the most unimaginable darkness. I think everyone needs to read that book. It’s a necessary remedy.)
As a bookseller I need to make it my job to convince others of the healing quality of the poetic. And then soon Charles Simic and Anne Sexton will be flying off the shelves.