Do you know any non-poets who buy poetry books? If so, what books do they buy? Anthologies? Books by particular poets? What influences their decision to buy those books? I ask because there was an interesting discussion going on about this over at WOMPO--the Women's Poetry Listserve.

Originally Published: August 10th, 2009

Catherine Halley is the editor of JSTOR Daily, an online magazine that draws connections between current affairs, historical scholarship, and other content available on JSTOR, a digital library of scholarly journals, books, and primary sources. She is the former digital director of the Poetry Foundation, where she served as editor...

  1. August 10, 2009
     Kenneth Goldsmith

    The constraint-based book Eunoia by Christian Bök went on to be the bestselling book of poetry ever in Canada and made the top ten bestseller list in the UK on a list headed up by Barack Obama. While the reception of Eunoia was acclaimed in academia, it was more beloved amongst the general population, finding its way into thousands of homes of readers who would more likely have a volume of Donald Hall on their shelves than Pounds Cantos.

  2. August 10, 2009

    Well, at least one does. I'm a 52 yr old Episcopal priest. I do not write poetry, but I do read it. Latest purchaces (and actually some reading done within them): Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry; Ray Gonzalez' Faith Run; and Suzanne Gardinier's Dialogue with the Archipelago. I'm pretty much inclined to buy anything that Copper Canyon, New Directions, Ecco, and Archipelago Pr. publish; more selective for university presses as well as the big publishing houses--Norton, Knopf, FSG, but still buy a lot of their stuff as well...Seidel's collected springs to mind.

  3. August 10, 2009
     Mozart Guerrier

    For my friends, the two things that gets them to buy is:\r

    meeting the poet, and being intrigued to see what else they have to offer...\r

    to support what they want to know more of: love poetry books or social justice books.

  4. August 11, 2009
     Margo Berdeshevsky

    I do know non-poet buyers/readers: doctors, lawyers, dentists, realtors, priests, & Indian chiefs. & people whom I sit next to on airplanes :) But a common denominator is they mostly "wish" they were poets. \r

    One curious difference--in Paris there is an annual "marché de la poésie" - an open-air square of book stands in front of a famed church, filled for late spring days with sellers and buyers of small hand made editions, often illustrated, as much art-objects as books, published in France & elsewhere in Europe. This market has always impressed me that there are buyers for poetry that is not a business, in the American sene. The editions are significantly small, & no poet who publishes feels diminished, or aspires to be Collins or Oliver. These are publishers, editors, & poets, who do it for love, not Amazon or academia. (I don't believe it's the only way, certainly. I can admit hope to be read, if possible, across a few spaces. But this scenario has always reminded me what art for the art is.I never hope to ignore that.) \r


  5. August 11, 2009

    Margo, your mention of the Paris affair brings up another point. The sizes of poetry books. (If this has been discussed already, I apologize.) The common large sizes are unnecessary, and, I imagine, intimidating to the general public. Why must books of poetry be 100 pages long? My idea of a perfect book of poetry is "Like a Bulwark" by Moore.\r

    Eleven poems in a handsome hardcover. About 20 pages with lots of white space. A brief collection that allows one to have a sense of the horizon as one moves along. It welcomes the general public. It looks like a children's book. But it delivers something else. It is a little jewel that you hold in your hand.\r

    100 pages of Ashbery? Sheesh. (And I like him quite much.)

  6. August 11, 2009
     Sina Queyras

    If you read poetry they say you've at least tried to write it, or want to, or wish you are a poet. I imagine the same is true for listening to music--you sing, or you want to. \r

    I do think non-poets buy poetry. They just have to find their way to it. I don't think the poetry biz does a great job of getting outside of its circles. As Kenny points out in his recent post, the UK edition of Christian Bok's book sold out days after an interview (BBC? Something like that?). \r

    Extreme case, but yes, they found their way to the poetry. \r

    Which is why I love those How Poems Work columns that occasionally appear in newspapers: they get poetry to unsuspecting readers. And often with great results.

  7. August 11, 2009
     Daisy Fried

    I was talking to some playwrights up in Provincetown last week--we seemed to talk about the same kinds of things--that if you don't grow up seeing plays and reading poetry, and if you don't begin forming adult taste by picking and choosing among what you like early on and continuously, you'll end up without taste, and therefore without a way in to encountering new kinds of work. So people do want to see contemporary plays (not just Broadway musicals), and they do want to read contemporary poetry (not just xxxxxx fill in the blank for your fave contemporary love-to-hate poet) but they don't know where to begin or what might appeal to them. They haven't gotten into the habit of encountering contemporary art. Of course, too, plays are expensive. Poetry not so much. \r

  8. August 11, 2009
     Sina Queyras

    Agreed, Daisy. I love the theatre but I don't love sitting through a bad show. Nothing quite as bad as that--you can't put it down, you can't walk out, and sometimes you can't breathe. \r

    Sadly, I guess this is why book prizes have become so important--it's one way to wade through the slush pile. But it's not the best way. What would one think of theatre if they only saw plays that won a Pulitzer?\r

    A non-writer friend once told me poetry was a much better investment than fiction or theater: unlike theatre you take it home, and unlike a novel every time you pick a book of poetry up, it's different.

  9. August 11, 2009

    I know two, but one used to write poetry, and the other is a songwriter. \r

    Regarding prices:\r

    1. I miss small paperbacks! Kenneth Koch and Ashbery used to come out with books that size -- I love them because they fit in an inside jacket pocket. Ever since Penguin classics followed the lead of Stallone, Springsteen, and McMansions, and needlessly bulked up their reprints, they've become less attractive and more expensive for no reason other than mirroring an era of conspicuous largeness.\r

    2. Theater Oobleck in Chicago (of which I was a co-founder) charges "pay what you can." In 25 years they've produced 66 original plays (or evenings of short plays), almost all of them to rave reviews, and few serious theater people outside of Chicago have ever heard of them. It's like a local band with 66 original albums, or a poetry collective with 66 books -- a sad indictment of the state of national cultural awareness that they're so obscure. None of them make a living from it, though they do get some grant money, and even before grants came in, for many many years the gate paid all production costs; they've never lost money to pay for rent, props, and sets. \r

    Anyway, Daisy, theater in Chicago isn't all expensive. Check them out next time you visit Poetry HQ.\r

  10. August 11, 2009

    Sina Queyras-\r
    I recently moved across the country, and sold the majority of my books. Not the poetry. Not one volume of it. I think you've hit on something quite true--poetry has staying power.\r
    Of course, some fiction does too. I hung on to my four different editions of Djuna Barnes' Nightwood, my Lorrie Moore and my Graham Greene too.\r

  11. August 11, 2009

    p.s. regarding size: Only "supermarket fiction" comes out in the size of the old Penguin and Signet Classics. "Literary" publishers decided to distinguish their product from "popular fiction," figuring, I imagine correctly (or else they're just stupid), that they'd make more money by appealing to people's snobbery and charging higher prices than they could for the same number of pages and words per page at a smaller size.\r

    Bummer, dudes!

  12. August 11, 2009
     Sina Queyras

    Some fiction does have staying power, yes. And to be fair, not all poetry is so fresh. Even as I was writing that response I was thinking, "you're not describing all poetry..." but I really was quoting a friend.

  13. August 11, 2009
     Margo Berdeshevsky

    Sure Dermot, good things can/may come in small packages...by small editions I wasn't referring to book size so much, tho that can be a way to make a specific treasure--, but to print runs. Less emphasis on numbers, more on the treasure. \r

    & just a thought to Sina & Daisy--re good/bad theatre/poetry/fiction - all the same, really, to me--like the girl with a curl, when she's good she's very very good & when she's bad, she's horrid. (Back as far as Hamlet's hope for the "play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king," one can hope for the play or the poem or the "art" in its best sense, to do its job. When/if it does, no matter the size...it's a good day. \r


  14. August 11, 2009
     Colin Ward


    Do Non-Poets Buy Poetry Books? \r

    Based on the numbers I'm seeing and notwithstanding the encouraging exceptions noted by others, my short answer is no.\r

    Some of my non-poet friends have a few of the classics in their library but admit they haven't read them in their entirety. None are quick to discuss contemporary poetry, let alone buy it.\r

    Insofar as my poet friends who do purchase the occasional book are concerned, it is usually because they've met the poet, often after having been dragged to a poetry reading. My experience echoes Margo's:\r
    But a common denominator is they mostly “wish” they were poets. \r

    For what it's worth, I suspect that this may always have been the case. Even in poetry's heyday, when newspapers and non-literary magazines included it in their pages, I'd wager that most of the readers were frustrated/aspiring poets. Also FWIW, I believe that book sales may have been the third most lucrative source of income for professional poets in general, after (in both the chronological and quantitative sense) public appearances and magazine/newspaper royalties. Think of the poets who never published a book during their careers! Alas, in this era when NFL Network mentions poetry more often than PBS does, book sales (and teaching salaries, of course) have become the only potentially significant return we can measure.\r

    Best regards,\r


  15. August 11, 2009

    I have new copies of Moby-Dick and Sister Carrie in that small size...

  16. August 11, 2009

    Signet Classics both....

  17. August 11, 2009
     Don Share

    I have a Signet Classic Milton, with notes and intro by Christopher Ricks. Seems to have been kept in print since 1968!

  18. August 11, 2009

    So it's only the Penguins -- and new lit. -- that bulked up! Thanks for the correction.

  19. August 12, 2009
     Hillary Gravendyk

    Green Integer makes the perfect pocket-sized books of poetry, mostly reprints. Small and square. Much better than the supermarket-paperback size. If only the published everything I wanted to read!

  20. August 14, 2009
     Verna Wilder

    I love reading poetry, and though I have written poetry, I'm not a poet. I buy, read, and share books of poetry and individual poems torn from the pages of The New Yorker with other non-poet friends. For some of us, reading Mary Oliver (for example) is a spiritual experience, bringing peace and comfort, a sense of greater mystery, a respite from the chaos of the world that is "too much with us." I read Billy Collins because he makes me laugh and John Donne when I want to spend time the language. I have one large bookshelf dedicated to books of poetry, everything from anthologies to several volumes of Adrienne Rich. \r

    I bought and read poetry long before I became an English major, and my notes on poets and poetry go all the way back to junior high school. I have a few non-poet friends who have a similar background and similar bookshelves, and I know this isn't typical. I wonder if there might be a gender difference in the answers to your questions. \r

    I love the question, and it's been interesting reading the answers. Thanks.

  21. August 15, 2009
     Lucy Morris

    Well, I guess it depends on what you define as a 'non-poet.' Both myself and many of my friends have studied poetry, write the occasional poem for private consumption and buy poetry books - but I'm not sure whether that make us poets in the formal sense? I believe that many people are poets without ever realising that they are, let alone being published. Many people I know buy and enjoy poetry books - mostly anthologies, comic poetry plus some of the classics i.e. Shakespeare. What influences their decision to buy? The literary canon, cut price book deals, books that are recommended by friends. \r

    It would be interesting to see what responses you'd get through a non-poetry related poll for comparison...

  22. August 15, 2009

    Speaking of the size of volumes lately, I would absolutely agree that books of poetry have become laughably large, and take up a useless amount of space. Big white pages that stretch well beyond a poems' end, font sizes for the near-blind, and gaping gaps between lines take away that which I most love about poetry: their portable presence. When I read poetry, I am celebrating for a short moment of reading something which can lift me up, again if only for a short moment, at any time, in any circumstance. Poetry that can be carried around at all times provides a magnificent source of comfort to which one can turn whenever necessary-and many more times in gratuitously fun reading. Having said that, I have found that there is a German publisher by the name Reclam who prints books (and some in English) in very readable font, yet at roughly the size of the palm of your hand. Poetry for your pocket is absolutely necessary-I have a copy of about 150 Shakespeare's sonnets which I carry in my back pocket and love every line of it.

  23. August 16, 2009

    Lucy and Verna,\r

    The question is a funny one -- "are you a poet?" is a question of identity, and I understand why you answered as you did even though you both write or have written poetry. "Do you write poetry?" is less vexed and vexing a question -- it asks what a person does instead of asking them to define themselves by what they do. I wrote a lot of poetry in college and then thought I had stopped, but always kept buying books; but now since I've started writing more regularly again (inspired by the internet -- thanks, Harriet! [and others]) and am talking with an artist friend about doing a book together, I realize that I had never completely stopped; and that I still wouldn't call myself a poet. I don't hesitate to call myself a musician, even though I've never made a living from it ("semi-pro" is a term I've romanticized from sports); and I'm always interested to know whether anybody I meet plays music too, being a big believer in amateur music-making. \r

    Thanks for your answers -- very interesting!

  24. August 16, 2009
     Sina Queyras

    Verna and Lucy,\r
    Nice to hear from you both. Verna, you say your notes on poetry "go all the way back to junior high school..." I'm intrigued by this. Most readers don't respond directly to the work. Have your thoughts on poetry changed over the years? I am also interested in your statement that you are looking for poetry that takes you out of the world already “too much with us.” \r

    I hear you on that, but hesitate to thin that poetry should only be solace, or lament, or any one gesture. What about poetry that helps us be in the world differently? \r


  25. August 16, 2009
     Sina Queyras

    Too quick! That should be "hesitate to think," although I also hesitate to thin.

  26. August 16, 2009
     Sandy Kirkley

    Thanks for the opportunity to add zest to my life, among the many other avenues! So much to read, and so little time! Thanks be to God for all the individual He created!

  27. August 23, 2009
     Howard Partch

    Who is poetry\r
    What is it\r
    Do you write\r
    Do you love?\r

    Are you full\r
    Are you empty\r
    Do you sing\r
    Do you speak?\r

    Is poetry success\r
    Is it being asked\r
    Do you feel it\r
    Does it flash by?\r

    It may be\r
    being alone\r
    wishing and remembering\r
    writing the first thoughts \r
    and leaving them for others.