Prose from Poetry Magazine

How to Make a Killing from Poetry: A Six Point Plan of Attack

1)Think Positive. Nobody likes a whiner. And poets always seem to be harping on the negative. The other day someone pointed out to me a perfect example of the problem, by a poet named William Carlos Williams:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems,
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

I don’t want to be too hard on William Williams. At least he gets the big picture: Americans need a reason to read. But once they have one, they’re great! No nation of readers has ever worked so hard to find useful stuff inside of books. And there’s no denying it, they do like to read the news. But there are two big marketing errors here: 1) going in, they don’t want to be told how hard it’s going to be; and 2) death isn’t a big seller. Trust me on this one. Americans don’t want to know how to die. They want to know how to lose weight. How to get rich. How to sustain that erection! Be the poet of erectile dysfunction, and you might just be the poet who can afford to pick up the check. You’ll start living so well that you won’t care how you die. Which brings us to the next action item:

2) Take Your New Positive Attitude and Direct It Towards the Paying Customer. The customer is your friend. Your typical poem really doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the living retail customer. This is just my opinion but, like our current president, many poets seem outright hostile to anyone except their most abject fans and the unborn. They seem to be banking on the support of theoretical future humans. They seem to think that they can safely disregard the opinions of actual living people.

Well, as they say on the bumper stickers, DENIAL ISN’T A RIVER IN EGYPT. (Think about that one.) It’s a symptom of a declining industry. Coal miners, steel workers, the guys who designed the Ford Explorer: they all spent a lot of time sitting around the canteen bitching and moaning about how the world’s going to hell. If you want to be a poet-entrepreneur, you can’t blame the messenger. It’s not the fault of any living human being that he doesn’t want to read your poems. The time you spend trying to figure out what’s wrong with the people who don’t buy your poems is time you could spend fixing the poems. To wit:

3) Think About Your Core Message. Your average reader might like a bit of fancy writing, but at the end of the day he will always ask himself: what’s my takeaway? My executive summary. And no matter how much you hope and pray that he won’t do this, he will inevitably ask himself: is this poet making sense? Of course, poets can dodge questions about what they mean by making a fuss about the complicated way they say it. But eventually your shrewder customer is going to see through the packaging to the product. And so it’s worth at least asking yourself: am I full of it?

I don’t mean that you have to be always on the playing field of the great game called Truth. But you need at least a bleacher seat. Not to single out Mr. William Williams, but he gives a handy illustration of the problem. Even if it’s true, which I doubt, that the people who bother to “get the news from poems” die better deaths than, say, their local Cadillac dealers, no one will believe it. Not with poets everywhere hanging themselves, sticking their heads in gas ovens, drinking themselves to death. At this point most people take a miserable death as the mark of the poet. Which brings us to another obvious tip:

4) Strive To Be Relevant. Once you start making sense you can turn your attention to making sense on a topic that concerns lots of people. This won’t come naturally. Success is hard work. But look around! Getting the news out of poems may be difficult, but it should be a cinch to put a bit of the news into them. Here’s an example (I’m just throwing this out there; take it for what it’s worth): a lady finds a human finger in her Wendy’s chili. The story plays for days. Everyone’s talking about it. The company’s stock is collapsing. In America’s fast food lines, stomachs are churning. And you sit down and write a poem:

Finger Food, by (Fill In Your Name Here)

Trust me, if you have the courage to write it, people will read it.

5) Overcome Your Fear. Right now, I’m guessing, you’re thinking: OK, I see how I can reach a mass market, but what will other poets say about me? You are right to be afraid. There will be some jealousy. Some envy. But take comfort, you’re not alone. Flipping though a stack of poetry books published in the past couple of years I found a lady poet named Ai. (No last name!) Ai wrote a poem called “Delusion.” It starts:

I watched the Trade Center Towers
burning, then collapse
repeatedly on television
until I could see them clearly
when I shut my eyes.
The blackened skies even blotted out my vision,
until I screamed and threw myself on the floor

See! It can be done! This we can build on. Here we have proof that a prize-winning poet (and from what I can see from all these book jackets there isn’t any other kind) can grab something off the front page, stuff it in a poem, and still hold her head high. But—and keep in mind I’m only trying to help here—I sense there’s some evil little demon sitting on Ai’s shoulder. Our old pal: fear of success. OK! the reader says, now we’re finally getting somewhere. Sure, I already know what it was like to watch the World Trade Center collapse on TV, and I might have liked some inside dope, but maybe I’ll pick up a new twist. But then what does Ai do? She forgets about the World Trade Center and goes off on some depressing story about her sister. Ai!

6) This brings me to my final point: Think Bigger! Everything about you guys is small time. I’ll give you an example. For the past few months California has been looking for a new poet laureate. The guy only gets paid ten grand a year, but we’ll leave that embarrassing fact to one side for a moment. The reason California needs a new poet laureate is that the old one, Quincy Troupe, got run out of office when the press found he’d lied on his resume about having a degree from Grambling. Contrary to what you might think, scandals like this can be good for poetry. At this point, any publicity is better than none. And the public’s takeaway from Troupe-Gate is that being a poet laureate is such a big deal that it’s worth lying on your resume to become one.

But Jesus Christ, guys, if you are going to re-invent yourself, why re-invent yourself as a graduate of Grambling? Why not Harvard? Why not, so long as we’re at it, throw in a war record, a career in sports, or anything else that might offset the image of poets as wussies?

A lot of what I’ve just said here is visionary, pie-in-the-sky sort of stuff. So let me end with an easy tip. There’s an obvious glitch in the poetry business that any enterprising poet could fix right now: a total failure of personal hygiene. I’ve seen some poets. Not a pretty sight. Every time I meet one of you guys I always ask: “Is there some new law that says a poet can’t have sex appeal?” You’ve had some hotties in the past, and they were great for business, but they’re all dead. Go and find some live ones. Encourage them. Trust me, they won’t just make news. They’ll make the kind of news people get.

Originally Published: October 30th, 2005

Michael Lewis is the author of Liar’s Poker and Moneyball. His interest in saving poets from themselves is insincere.

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In
  1. April 2, 2008

    The statement you wrote " alot of what I've said here is visionary...", is what poetry is. Words paint pictures and being containers words can hold much, be it spoken or read. I prefer spoken instead cause it penitrates through the head, heart, and then soul. Especially if the soul is the goal, to shine some measure of clarity, hope,and or a smile it is this that makes it worthwhile. To hear or read poetry paints pictures of imagery that 's alive and in color and all the while you're still in wonder, its the clapping of the hands that interupts leaving you there wih a half filled cup waiting for the next filler-up!

  2. December 26, 2008
     Niel Rosenthalis

    Interesting article--brings to mind Wordsworth's famous 'a poet is a man speaking to men.' Political incorrectness aside, this statement effectively summarizes most of this article. It's a point I agree with. But I'd say that poets need to beware dumbing down their language. To paraphrase Adrienne Rich, much of today's poetry is approaching the level of TV language, diction, and tone. Especially with all those crazy elliptical poets. Gah!

    But I digress--I think the basic aim of the article is worth noting in revising poems. And the last point is a definite diamond.

    Nothing wrong with sex appeal. I mean, look how far it's gotten us!

  3. October 16, 2010
     Don Bedichek

    To Michael Lewis:

    Your comments about AI's award-winning and extraordinary poetry demonstrates a depth of ignorance and dearth of morality I have rarely encountered in this venue.

    I'm certain that the late "William Williams" would agree.

    May AI's moral literature live on.

  4. March 31, 2011
     Eugene O'Callaghan

    To Don Bedichak:

    Your comments about ML's award winning and extraordinary journalism demonstrates a depth of humourlessness and a dearth of irony I have rarely encountered in this venue.

    I'm certain that the late "William Williams" would agree.

    May ML's narrative literature live on.

  5. August 26, 2011

    Mr. William Williams is never referred to in this foolish manner. He is always called William Carlos williams, oh, that is Dr. William Carlos Williams. He was a M.D. in patersaon, NJ, and should be accorded the respect a posthumous pulitzer Prize winner deserves, and that starts by getting his name right.