How MUCH is poetry worth?

There’s value and there’s cost.

For practising poets, for example, there’s the cost of sending work out to magazines. There’s the cost of paper, and stamps and envelopes and printers and toner. The cost of travelling to readings and festivals and open mikes and workshop groups, and paying to get in. The cost (maybe) of entering competitions. The cost of enrolling for courses and even qualifications. And the emotional cost: investing years of your life making things out of words that will probably never achieve . . . whatever it is you want them to achieve. Readers? Wings? Publication? Money?

But what about the cost of reading it? For poetry readers (as opposed to writers), this is about pleasure. You buy just as much (or as little) as you want, or can afford. If you don’t like the look of it, you don’t buy it at all. Why would you? Desert Island Risks: which eight poems would you take with you? You don’t need a lot.

But reading for the jobbing poet is another matter. It’s part of the business. First there’s the reading over the centuries, to research all the tricks and literary stratagems that have ever been tried. These are part of your armoury, your craft and your initial investment. Then there’s the keeping up: reading contemporary magazines (which means subscriptions to several) and new books. Poets complain there aren’t enough publishers. And maybe there aren’t. But still there are dozens and dozens and dozens of new collections. They spring up like meerkats: ‘Read me! No – read me!’

Some practising poets these days send only to ezines. Cheaper but not the same. Nothing like an ephemeral paper publication to quicken the blood. And for me, I like to read poems on paper. I can (and do) read them on a screen, but two thirds of the aesthetic pleasure is lost.

I keep a tally of what I spend and set it against tax. Buying poetry is part of my business. It supports the others (we are a network, after all) and I need to keep up with the reading. But I buy more poetry than I read. Behind me, in front of the poetry books and not yet shelved, are about 80 books acquired in the last year. There are more at the side of the bed. I have read most of them but with varying degrees of dedication. Poetry has to be read more than once, doesn’t it? – probably at least three times to get a handle. I don’t read all the books I buy three times, but I do read all the poems inside them that I like at least three times.

Oh but what about the guilt list? I carry this round in my head, ever-lengthening. I feel permanent remorse for all the poetry books I haven’t yet bought and read. Some of them are written by my friends! They stack up reproachfully in my memory bank. Despite the purchase of several volumes each month, there are always more I haven’t yet got. And always more newsletters from publishers telling me the latest wonderful thing I know I want to get. But how to get them all? How to read them all?

I relate to poetry readers with careful purses. Take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves. But my buying of poetry easily adds up to between £500 and £600 per year. Magazine subs will add another £100 at least. I could spend much more but I can’t read much more.

And now – to add insult to injury – I’m a poetry peddler. I sell the stuff. So I want the ordinary Desert Island Risks readers, and I want the jobbing poets. I want them to buy stuff from me. Often I think how much easier it would be to sell paper clips. Or yoghourt. Or tea-towels. Or bait for fisherfolk. Or tin whistles.b2ap3_thumbnail_ENTOMOLOGY_medium.jpg

But let me tell you about the new HappenStance pamphlet you’re going to want to buy. Have you ever come across someone who liked bluebottles? Calliphora vomitoria – blimey, what a name! Meet Helen Clare, poet and entomologist, an mind in which literature and science meet. Entomology is full of insects and behind the insects, as in most poems, are human concerns. It’s a love story. Love and loss: the two great themes.

If insects really creep you out (but don’t you just love the cover?), try fruit. Rosemary Hector whips up a mean syllabub from a quince or a cranberry, a pineapple or banana, in Knowing Grapes. And as for plums – well!

I know poetry costs too much. I know you need to spend money on the garden, and the bathroom and servicing the car. But this is different. Food for thought, a pamphlet. And not too long: just enough for reflection without pain, rehearsal without curses. Just £4.00. Only £3.00 if you’re a subscriber.

And after that, you’ll need to buy some stamps if you’re sending me poems with SAEs enclosed (please read the guidelines first). The July window opens on Tuesday, though several packets have already arrived, and at least one is sitting waiting in the sorting office (understamped).

Dear poets – what a business all this is! But isn’t it fun? It’s it marvellous to be part of this society of scribblers? Isn’t it great to make them and read them and hobnob about what’s missable and unmissable? Can you imagine a life without poems? Can you imagine not having an ill-fitting line to worry away at like a loose tooth?

Doesn’t the value infinitely outweigh the cost?


Gerris lacustris
Pond Skater

It turns out that the knack my mother had
of seeking out and bouncing smoothed flat stones
off the surface of Lake Bala depends
on water meshing, like a trampoline
returning the fallen to the sky,
or the atmosphere pushing off spacecraft.
Water clings to itself like mercury,
avoiding air, forming drops as it’s sloughed
from drenched dogs. Insect legs stretch the water’s shell:
they paddle without piercing or wetness.
It’s true too that a mosquito’s footfall
does not break dreams, as the skin—oblivious
to air—shrugs off the countless touches
of the day. Talk to me now of ripples.


       – Helen Clare (from Entomology)




I have learned some gruesome things from poems.

This week, after sending Helen Clare’s pamphlet Entomology to the printer, I looked up the word ‘assassin’. According to Merriam Webster the word comes to us via the medieval Latin assassinus, from Arabic ashshāshīn, plural of ashshāsh (worthless person – literally, hashish user). The poem that led me to ‘assassin’ also took me, via Helen’s blog, to a gruesome little film clip of Stenolemus bituberus in action, the Assassin Bug from whom a poem takes its title.

If you want to watch the film, here it is:

The filmed sequence is creepy, though not totally unhinging (like the film I watched earlier this week of a heron, that great poetic symbol of wisdom and priestliness, devouring a duckling). Also the assassin bug in the YouTube clip is in Australia, which makes it (from the point of view of a viewer in Scotland), less threatening. I mind less about Australian spiders being viciously attacked. This doesn’t show I am a good human being, if you extrapolate the reasoning, but let that be. It’s only spiders we’re talking about.

Except in Helen’s poems it’s really people, needless to say. We humans see the whole of the natural world in terms of ourselves: perhaps there’s no other way. Even the name ‘Assassin Bug’ lifts the insect out of Latin and plonks it firmly into a human context. The fascination of knowing how some living creatures kill other living creatures underpins many a natural-world documentary. The more gruesome the method, the greater the fascination.

The poems in Entomology work in, round and about the sonnet form. The great classic sonnet sequences (Petrarch, Sydney, Spenser, Shakespeare) take love as their central theme. Helen takes insects. But love (both dark and delightful) is the key player.

To coincide with the publication of Entomology, the scientist/poet is blogging about some of its dramatis personae. She’s already written about the Emperor Dragonfly and the Assassin Bug here:  There will be more.

Meanwhile, here’s the bug between the lines.


Stenolemus bituberus
Assassin Bug

I love them all. CSI. NCIS.
Law and Order. Criminal Minds. I’ve read

there’s a comfort in these haunted heroes
who’re on our side when the worst has happened.

My favourites are those killers who look
a victim in the eye, tell them what they’ll do,

or leave a trail of clues someone might unpick
but only just in time. And no-one knows

why an assassin bug, after creeping
across a web, stretching, snipping, bouncing up

a screen of vibrations, then mimicking
a trapped fly, gives its prey a gentle tap.

Or why when, before our marriage, he said
he was selfish, I thought he exaggerated.




A good question . . .

It certainly works for Candlestick Press, which has two titles in the top ten poetry sales in the UK listed in the current Bookseller. Everything at Candlestick is themed: Five Poems about Teachers, Ten Poems about Gardens, Thirteen Poems of Revenge. These are adorable little publications. They reach the parts other poetry doesn’t penetrate.

But nearly all the Candlestick Press publications are anthologies. That is to say, the contents are poems by several poets. Not all of them are famous or classic or dead, but some certainly are. And the editors tend to have kudos (notably Carol Ann Duffy with the Christmas pamphlets).

Themes certainly seem to boost anthology penetration. The Emma Press (keep an eye on this new imprint) first did an anthology of “Mildly Erotic Verse” (great title), has since done one on Motherhood and there’s one on Dance in the making. Send your poems now and join the Emma Press Club (another neat marketing idea).

Second Light did Parents, as well as embracing ‘Women’ as a general theme. Grey Hen has done anthologies about the sea; the bee; the Brontes, birds; trying circumstances; and “aging older women”. Bloodaxe has cats, and Irish Poets. Faber & Faber has trains.

Does the theme sell the publications? It certainly makes them stand out. Themed books lend themselves to gift purchase too, presumably. Poems about golf for a golfer. Poems about dance for dancers, motherhood for mothers.

What about single author collections? Diana Gittins’ HappenStance pamphlet Bork!, which is a sequence of poems about chickens, has certainly sold a good number of copies either to poets who keep hens, or to people with friends with hens. Many purchasers have sent for two or three copies, not one, which suggests gifts are in the offing.

I’m willing to bet Kate Clanchy’s Newborn has sold more widely than her other books, though of course I don’t know. Slattern won more prizes but I bet Newborn sold more copies. it makes a great gift for a new mum. The cover picture of the baby is a winner – I bought it myself when my daughter had her baby. And doesn’t Picador have The Book of Birth Poems edited by no other than . . . K. Clanchy.

I conclude: themes are Good Things.

This is not why I’m about to publish two pamphlets with themes. Sometimes themes just happen. The first, and most imminent themed item, is Rosemary Hector’s Knowing Grapes. The central idea is (you guessed it) fruit. The next is Helen Clare’s Entomology. Theme: insects. Will Knowing Grapes sell to fruit lovers? Will Entomology sell to . . . insect lovers? Are there any insect lovers?

Okay – the theme helps with distinguishing one pamphlet from another. But so does the picture on the cover and the name of the author and a whean of other things. The theme can also be a smokescreen. Rosemary Hector’s fruit poems, for example, are not really about fruit. Or not just fruit. This is even more true for Entomology, which may be about love.

Alas, there’s only one way to find out what these new pamphlets (and they aren’t even in the shop yet) are really about. You have to read them. You can’t read them yet though because they’re not published yet. Sometimes new publications are described as “eagerly awaited”. It’s spring. Please start cultivating your eagerness now.

In the meantime, Richard Osmond’s Variant Air, which is in the HappenStance shop, has a sort of theme. But the lynchpin is more of a style than a theme – and it belongs to Gerard Manley Hopkins. If you’re a Hopkins afficionado I think you’ll find this publication particularly compelling. But don’t take my word for it. There are better words inside the pamphlet.