marketing poetry

Poetry needs to be marketed like anything else, and poets find themselves branded with identities that appeal to needs manufactured for an ideal readership.


Marketing crafts how people instinctively think and feel about themselves into an image symbiotic with some product or service. That image may take precedence over need or merit, but is unavoidable in a consumerist society. Money spells success. US direct mailing, for example, grew from to 35 billion in 1980 to 86 billion items in 1999. Reviewing may be a poor relation, but is still part of the selling process.


Here is an introduction, presented through examples rather than a proper field study: a suggestion only.

:Newspaper Articles

In poetry circles, Stevenson has never wanted for admirers. A celebratory volume, published in honour of her 70th year, attracted tributes from virtually every leading figure of the poetry establishment, yet her talent has often been eclipsed. She would be the most notable literary alumnus of the University of Michigan, were it not for Arthur Miller; the foremost American woman poet of her generation, were it not for Plath. Today she might enjoy a far greater profile among the poetry-reading public were it not for her indifference to self-promotion on the literary circuit. "I've cancelled all my subscriptions to poetry magazines," she says. "I prefer to read the New Scientist. My trouble is that I don't relate very well to today's popular idea of what a poet should be. I never wanted to be a pop star." She has agreed to take part in a round-table event in Newcastle on National Poetry Day next Thursday ("it would seem curmudgeonly not to"), but says: "I truly hate marketing promotions, and I don't at all approve of encouraging wannabe poets to write bad poetry."

"It mystifies me when a poet of Anne Stevenson's stature seems to be marginalised," says Neil Astley, her publisher at Bloodaxe, "but it also speaks of her artistic independence, her individuality, and her refusal to play along with the system." {1}

The passage is taken from Guardian Online's bookpage. The article begins with a description of the poet's present home in the north of England, lists her literary achievements, provides the tributes quoted, moves through her background and its relevance to her writing, mentions her biography of Sylvia Plath, and ends with quotes and bibliography. An engaging portrait of the woman emerges, which should illuminate her work. But of the poetry, unfortunately, we only get three snippets:

Going Deaf

I've lost a sense. Why should I care?
Searching myself, I find a spare.
I keep that sixth sense in repair
And set it deftly, like a snare.

From Arioso Dolente:

Father, who ran downstairs as I practised the piano;
barefooted, buttoning his shirt, he shouted "G,
D-natural, C-flat! Dolente, arioso.
Put all the griefs of the world in that change of key."

And a short excerpt from Correspondences:

So I cry and cry and then
wish there were some way to justify
the release of it.
For it's not for her particular death,
but for what dies with her.
Something that calls
For our abduction
out of things. Nostalgia
for expended generations.

Is this all that a noted intellectual newspaper's readership can take? Stevenson usually writes better, and these examples would seem almost to guarantee her books stay unopened on bookshop and library shelves.

Yet what is happening here, I suggest, is marketing by association. Just as an advert for a two dollar beer seems to promise a beach-party with the smart set, so these examples offer an entry into an interesting writer's life. And, for that reason, perhaps the work should be flat, not drawing attention to itself, or it could not be absorbed by the copywriter's craft.

:Literary Heavyweights

If poetry is as much a state of mind as it is an assortment of black marks on white pages, then it resides in that intimate space between the world and those who observe it. In one of these poems, Snyder quotes a haiku by the Japanese master Issa: ''This dewdrop world / is but a dewdrop world / and yet-.'' ''That 'and yet,' '' he adds, ''is our perennial practice.'' From this standpoint, the poet's powers are best used to describe, with a few strokes, what's always been out there and, if we can keep the dark forces at bay, what will always be out there, even after our own brief moment has passed.

The best of this new work explores the interplay between what's remembered, what's seen now and what may come. Thus the prosy ''Atomic Dawn'' recounts how the young Snyder descends from a climb to the peak of Mount St. Helens in 1945 to find a bulletin board at the Spirit Lake lodge plastered with photographs of the destruction of Hiroshima:

''There were whole pages of the paper pinned up: photos of a blasted city from the air, the estimate of 150,000 dead in Hiroshima alone, the American scientist quoted saying 'nothing will grow there again for 70 years.' . . . I swore a vow to myself, something like, 'By the purity and beauty and permanence of Mount St. Helens, I will fight against this cruel destructive power.' ''

Not all the poems hit this hard; in fact, too many contain lines that are mere window dressing. (''Heading south down the freeway making the switch / from Business 80 east to the I-5 south.'') There are poets who talk to us, like Whitman, and poets with whom we talk, like Dickinson. Snyder is the second type, and when he squanders too much of a poem on pure description, it's O.K. to say, ''You're boring us, man.'' In fact, he comes across as so good-natured, so open to every possibility, that you get the feeling he'd probably just cackle with laughter and agree. {2}

Not untypical of the Book Review Desk in the New York Times: cursory, amiable but not entirely pulling its punches (prosy, mere window dressing). We like Gary Snyder the man, but what about his poetry? If we extract all that's quoted from this 874-word article, it doesn't look too promising:

This dewdrop world
is but a dewdrop world
and yet-.

'By the purity and beauty and permanence of Mount St. Helens,
I will fight against this cruel destructive power.'

Heading south down the freeway making the switch
from Business 80 east to the I-5 south.

flapping black plastic lids
gobbling flattened cardboard

Most of my work,
such as it is
is done.

The editor knows his readership, but is this not a little too summary? The Beat movement is long over, but this was Snyder's first collection since 1983, and he presumably took his environmental position seriously.

Perhaps so, but we are overlooking the journalist's skill. Good poems they may not be, but these examples do suggest the range, character and personality of Snyder's work. Deftly and with good humour the article turns the reviewing business on its head. Ideally we want to know what the poetry is like, and whether it's worth reading, which is why we might then take an interest in its author. We'd like to know if that St. Helen's poem survives its bald statements, and whether Snyder can turn out better haiku than the snowdrop piece. What we get, though, is the marketing image, the genial backwoodsman "chopping wood, sharing meals with neighbors, taking on the dark forces of anti-environmentalism". Why not give column space to those who need the publicity, to the unknown hundreds languishing in the small presses? Because Snyder belongs to a mythic generation, part of American history: buy a volume and get a taste of it.

:Book-Length Surveys

The regard resting on the object . . . the key to
self-affirmation: a self reclaims itself from nonentity and, as the
object reveals itself in a certain light, that self can gaze into its
own depths as an agent of interiority . . . Between 'I am' and
'This is' there can be strange ligatures — a magico-grammatical
tissue links first and third persons singular.
         Christopher Middleton: Reflections on a Viking Prow
         In Bolshevism in Art and other expository writings (Carcanet Press, 1978)

Middleton's own ligature 'magico-gramatical' may imply that there is a kind of nostalgia in him, despite his explicit disclaimers, for a lost divinity. The vanished god leaves sacremental traces in the world to be reclaimed by the text in a kind of late Platonic semiotics; the god may be brought down or back by a calling-forth of disregarded but still immanent spirits. Officially, however, this new relation is turned not towards theology but towards a ludic politics. The poem effects a revision of attitudes by subverting cliché and stereotype; it 'infuriates the world into showing its hand'. For Middleton, poetry is a 'limit to enslavement' and thereby 'exigent': 'I decipher the dreams of the victims who have no chance to speak'. {3}

Corcoran places Christopher Middleton's work in its broader setting, classifying it as a variety of Neo-Modernism. Much in the five pages devoted to the artist is exactly stated, though perhaps couched in more radical terminology than needed: the poem is straightforward, and we don't know whether the late Platonic refers to our world or the tail-end of the classical world that the Viking invasions helped to destroy. But my interest is in what is being read into the poem, which seems more than its text supports. The intention cannot be to clarify — it doesn't — but to thicken the poem's significance and contemporary relevance. The commentary has echoes of Heidegger (showing its hand), Structuralism (semiotics) and Barthes (subverting), which the poetry does not. Trendy writing? More an example of marketing, I suggest: this is serious poetry because it has serious themes, which we, as well-read members of the intelligentsia, can understand. We are being sold a passport into literate society, or a society literate in some contemporary concerns.

I am not making a criticism of the sometimes pyramid selling of literature, but suggesting why a simple poem receives such elaborate treatment. Readers will need to analyze the pages on Middleton to know if they support my thesis, and I would warmly recommend they read the whole book: difficult in places but a probing analysis of the period.


1. Border crossings. Alfred Hickling. Guardian. Saturday October 2, 2004.,,1317578,00.html
2. Ars Longa, Vita Longa. David Kirby.
. NYT review of Danger On Peaks by Gary Snyder. 112 pp. Shoemaker & Hoard. $22. 11 - 21 - 2004 Late Edition.
3. Neil Corcoran, English Poetry since 1940 (Longan, 1993), 166.

Further Reading

1. James F. English, The Economy of Prestige : Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value. (Harvard Univ. Press, 2005).
2. Franco Meretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History. (Verso, 2005).
3. Amanada Anderson, The Way We Argue Now : A Study in the Cultures of Theory. (Princeton Univ. Press, 2005).
4. Laura J. Miller, Reluctant Capitalists : Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. (Univ. Chicago Press, 2006).

C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.