poetry doesn’t sell because it isn’t performed well enough

Interesting reading from the folks at Commercial Poetry:

… poetry sales figures make it abundantly clear that no one buys poetry without performance of that poem, of that poet’s work or of poetry in general. Aside from the paltry numbers involved, the model of publishing a tome and then doing readings for a few dozen friends and fellow poets fails for two reasons:

– it must be a performance, not a reading; and,
– it is ass-backwards: live, film or theatrical production comes before any expectation of profitable text publication.

This was true even in poetry’s heyday. Shakespeare’s plays were not collected and published until well after he retired. How many copies would his scripts have sold without production? Just as you don’t buy MP3s of songs/artists you’ve never heard, interest in individual poets usually began with seeing their work performed, not necessarily by the poet*. If enough of that writer’s work caught your fancy you might buy the book or catch the author on tour. Contrast that to poetry’s status quo: to no one’s surprise, people who have never encountered a contemporary poem being performed competently are not enthused about reading any particular poem or poetry in general. How many Superbowl tickets are purchased by those who have never seen a football game?

I especially love the footnote corresponding to the asterisk above:

* The notion that anyone other than the author would want to perform a contemporary poem seems utterly foreign to today’s poets. As long as this is the case there is no hope for poetry’s reanimation.

Cross-posting at Voice Alpha (of course).

Published by

Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

6 thoughts on “poetry doesn’t sell because it isn’t performed well enough”

  1. Interesting if true. They don’t include any links or citations, so I’m inclined to be skeptical about some of their sweeping assertions, such as the one your quoted portion opens with.

    1. I don’t disagree, but I love the assertion – it’s so bold and really quite original. You and I have been following poetry sales and poetry performance issues for quite a while now, and this is the first time I’ve seen them linked, that I recall.

  2. It is interesting–and I am all for readings aplenty! I guess I’m not sure about the performance element–I prefer the idea of sharing work aloud, I think. And I think poets entertain audiences in different ways (while some poets are amazing readers and performers, others are intense or unique readers, and that works equally well for them).

    1. Hi Hannah – Yes, you remind me that the differences and overlaps between reading, reciting and performing are worth considering – I’m not sure I’ve given them as much thought as I probably should have…

  3. It seems absurd to me to support an argument based on the history of poetry… oral poetry and the poetry written since the modernist period (and the increase in literacy and the availability of books) can not be compared. The latter is often more of a visual medium. Might as well say poems that do not rhyme or are not written in meter are not good enough.

    I suppose, one might *try* to argue that poetry as a visual medium is outmoded and no longer relevant. Doubt that would be convincing.

    But making a comparison to Shakespeare’s sonnets (much less his plays) is irrelevant (fewer people could have read them or had the money to purchase them). His plays were not published for financial reasons (to keep the competing playwrights and companies from “lifting” them… there were no copyright protections and it was common practice to lift whole passages when you could get ahold of them… forgive me for not bothering to cite that right now.)

    We still buy haiku, though we never heard them performed. Issa has been dead for a long time, after all. And I have never seen footage of a performance.

    Also: film? A lot of films are best-selling novels first. How does that figure at all into an argument about why people supposedly aren’t buying books of poetry unless they first see a performance (which is also an unsupported assumption).

    This is a rant, not an argument. However… now I am thinking about the role of “popularity” in literature yet again.

    1. Hey Ren – welcome back! As I said to David, I don’t disagree, but I love this assertion in the ‘popularity of poetry’ context – it’s not one I’ve seen before. And judging by the spike in Very Like A Whale traffic in response to this piece, the idea has resonance. I stopped by Commercial Poetry to let them know there were comments here they might wish to respond to — maybe…! Great to hear from you as always.

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