Friday, March 5, 2010

How to Make a Bestseller: Poetry as Self Help

A couple of days ago, Michael Berger wrote in the almost always excellent online magazine The Rumpus that if only poets and publishers could leverage the poetic obsession with ‘death’ and ‘loss,’ bookstores would be selling a lot more poetry books. Here’s an excerpt:

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.

Good grief, poetry as grief counseling. What’s next, Rita Dove writes “Goodbye Grief,” Tony Hoagland writes “Twelve Steps Backward,” Charles Simic’s “Elegy for the Last Cigarette,” or Marie Howe’s “The Diet Sonnets?” Granted, poetry is often a way in, a way through some of the most complex of human issues. It can certainly console, but it can also uplift, sing, amuse, and dance. Death is certainly one of poetry’s preoccupation, where isn’t it, but there’s also lots of sex, love, infidelity, money won and lost, murder, and lots and lots of mayhem. For me, poetry is compensation for only having one life.

The fiction bestseller lists are dominated by James Patterson, Nicholas Sparks, Dan Brown, Harlen Coben, and Nora Roberts. I admit I’ve dived in to a few books by the aforementioned group and, yes, enjoyed them. There is a reason these books are called page-turners. But it is a rare case when anything we might call ‘literary fiction’ finds itself teetering at the top of one of The New York Times bestseller lists. Granted, a number of authors I consider articulate, complex, funny, and capable of writing a sentence with more than one subordinate clause like Jonathon Lethem, Jonathon Franzen, Alice Munro, Joyce Carroll Oates, etc, do sell. They even sometimes make it to the bestseller lists. But the number of books sold by these authors falls far far short of those sold by the highbrow romance publisher Harlequin. I mean how else does a young girl learn about sex?

Most people I know who avoid poetry do so for a whole slew of different reasons including but certainly not limited to lack of familiarity, perceived difficulty, desire for story, escape and entertainment, and, for sure, confusion in the face of the sheer number of poetry books. These are some of the same reasons these same people avoid literary fiction. Moreover, there is probably a reason Billy Collins and Mary Oliver are two of the bestselling poetry writers—they are often amusing, well at least Collins, straightforward and their poems illuminate feelings, and not just grief.

Reading poetry takes practice. I suppose if children were given more books of poetry and less Harry Potter, we’d have more adults reading poetry. That’s not to say that poetry doesn’t provide a beautiful and often helpful lens of loss and suffering. Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do,” Kimiko Hahn’s “Unbearable Heart,” Mary Jo Bang’s “Elegy,” tell what it is to lose a brother, a mother, a child. When I lost my mother, it was to this ‘help’ I turned.

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