Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,  
But sad mortality o’ersways their power,  
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,  
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

O! how shall summer’s honey breath hold out,  
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,  
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,  
Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?  
O fearful meditation! where, alack,  
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?  
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?  
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?    
O! none, unless this miracle have might,    
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

Shakespeare Sonnet 65

One of the reasons poets want their poems published is so they’ll live on, after their death —the poems, I mean — though there’s a sense in which we want to believe a bit of the author is preserved along with them. If a UK book or pamphlet has an ISB number, copies will nestle in the copyright libraries forever. Or not. There are six mandatory receiving libraries in the UK. (In Poland there are 19).

There is a cost to this for publishers, of course, and also for the libraries. Cambridge University Library has been a legal deposit library since 1710. It currently houses its print contents over 100 miles of shelving, expanding at the rate of two miles per year.

Still it’s a comfort to know that once a book is positioned securely somewhere in those 100 miles, it’s safe. The words between the covers are protected from ‘the wrackful siege of battering days’ for a good while.

But publishing dead poets is problematic – unless the authors have already achieved school textbook status and outlasted copyright restrictions. Poets like Keats and Shakespeare sell well (in the context of a genre whose sales stats sink the heart). Other poets sell poorly at the best of times, and if they’re no longer around to help promote . . .

Because increasingly living poets have a dynamic role as marketers and promoters of their own books. They announce publication in social networks; some of them blog online; they work hard to get online reviews and offline readings. They ask all their friends to write to Poetry Please and request them. Publishers mainly don’t do this any more, if they ever did.

Living poets are placed between two stools. On the one hand, many of them are modest, bookish people. On the other, they are producing their own promotional text, with varying degrees of unease. Some of them turn out to be amazingly good at it. Others are frankly terrible.

Dead poets are spared this. With luck, some of their friends will continue to promote their book(s). But with the best will in the world, enthusiasm vacillates and wavers over time.

And other factors come into play. The work of dead poets is hard to get reviewed, even if the publisher is sending out myriad copies. Many publications don’t review the work of dead poets as standard policy. There are too many books every year from living poets clamouring for attention.

Dead poets can’t apply for grants or residencies. Dead poets can’t take on commissions. Dead poets can’t answer letters. Dead poets can’t network or blog. Dead poets can’t appear at festivals. Dead poets can’t write new topical poems. Dead poets can’t upload recordings on YouTube or SoundCloud.

And books of dead poets are usually ineligible for prizes and awards. The Forward Prize, for example, stipulates that ‘work submitted on behalf of an author who is deceased at the date of publication of the work is not eligible.’ What does a dead poet need with a cash prize? But it’s not the cash. It’s the attention that both the dead and the living most need. That’s what brings readers to poems.

If the poet is not there demanding attention, who is doing it for them?

The original idea was that the poems would continue doing the job. ‘Time’s best jewel’ would ‘still shine bright’ in ‘black ink’. People would read the printed poems and share them. That phenomenon known as ‘word of mouth’ would do the business.

Theoretically ‘word of mouth’ is more powerful than ever before. Publishers are keen to exploit the possibility that any text could go viral. It worked for J K Rowling. So far as I know, it has never (yet) worked for poetry.

Where am I going with this? HappenStance has just published a book of poetry by a dead poet. The Years, by Tom Duddy, will not be promoted or circulated by Tom Duddy, though his friends and family will do their best. It will not be entered for any prizes. It will gradually find its way to a number of very good readers: at least I hope it will. It is a beautiful book with the highest production quality we could get. There are times when an absolute belief in the work must override all other considerations. This is one of those times.

Meanwhile, a living HappenStance poet, C J Driver, will be taking part in a memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Westminster Abbey at noon on March 3rd. Among other words, Jonty will be upholding the faith by sharing a bit of Shakespeare, undying proof that some poetry really does endure.


10 thoughts on “PUBLISHING DEAD POETS”

  1. I have already bought and read, several times, this posthumous collection of Tom Duddy’s work. His way of saying things, simple things like remarking on the emptiness of the Christian bookshop on a Saturday afternoon, is couched in humour, a wry, sly humour, which is delightful. I can’t stop reading the poems, hoping to find out how he does this. Can’t recommend this collection highly enough!

  2. Qualities such as integrity, humility, humour, authenticity, empathy, risking, doubt and an unending curiosity are everywhere when reading Tom Duddy’s poems and it not surprising, but still delightful, that these same qualities abound in your blogs and your thoughts about the whole poetry publishing shebang Nell. A good match indeed!

  3. I didn’t realise about the ineligibility for prizes if the poet is dead. I think this should be allowed if it is a completely new publication of previously unpublished work. What a terrible shame. I shall do my bit to spread the word…

  4. I would also add, at the risk of going off at a tangent, that the great majority of living poets never get a shout at the big prizes either, the T.S. Eliot, the Forward, etc.And don’t the organisers of the Costa Prize insist that publishers pay them a rather large amount of money before their poets can even be considered for the shortlist? That militates against any poet published by a smaller press.

    I don’t expect publishers to organise every reading that a poet might intend to do, that would be unworkable. But I do think it’s a shame that a large (and increasing?) of publishers won’t even help with the organising of a [i]single[/i] reading. I personally expect a publisher to be rather more than merely a printer. I know I’m not alone in this.

  5. Sheila, thanks for your tangent, which is not tangential at all but reflects some widely shared concerns.

    Living poets can at least have their books entered for these prizes. I don’t claim that this is necessarily a good thing (I have grave reservations about our prize culture) but at least the option is there. On the other hand, dead poets are spared the pressure to be entered for prizes they’re unlikely to win.

    So far as I know, entry for the Costa Book Award requires submission of five copies of the relevant book but no fee. If there is a further fee for shortlisting, I don’t know about that.

    Many publishers work hard to organise and support readings for their poets. But it’s a partnership and it’s much easier to get readings for some poets than others, depending on the poet’s track record at events and in publication terms. Publishers also have networks of poets who help each other (Happen[i]Stance[/i] poets certainly do this).

    A publisher’s power to make things happen depends very much on how many people are involved. A single person can only do so much.

    A publisher is not a printer. The functions are quite different. A publisher works with a printer (and pays the printer) to make a physical book.

    Other things publishers do include: selection (many ms carefully read before one is selected for publication), editing (ongoing work and interaction with poet), dealing with submissions, typesetting, book design, press releases, promotion via websites and publicity materials, circulating copies for review, registering publication details and lodging copies with copyright libraries and other interested bodies, making book available for sale (in various outlets, depending on publisher), maintaining website that helps to promote and make book available for sale, entering work for prizes (as appropriate). It is a demanding workload, and it is a constant cycle: one book, then another, and another, and another.

    When poets approach publishers, they need to take a careful look at how that publisher works and what is possible. If in doubt, they should write and ask. (If you think the publisher will notice you doing this and take against you, pretend to be doing some research for an article.)

    Some publishers (Pighog, for example) organise regular events. Others do not and cannot. One has to be realistic.

    Any poet with a publisher who is simply co-ordinating a print arrangement should, in my view (which is only one view and obviously biassed) consider self-publishing or co-operative publishing. A good number of people now do this successfully and command considerable respect in the process.

    You make me even more aware than I already am that I need to do the revised edition of [i]How (Not) to Get Your Poetry Published[/i]! The situation is often difficult, and uncomfortable. But at least the internet means it’s possible to find things out, to weigh up situations, and have some options. At least I very much hope so.

  6. I am aware that all those things are things that publishers[i] should[/i] do, yes. And the ones who do this, often for very little financial return, have my admiration and respect. it’s a lot of work. But I have come across other publishers, on my own account and through the experiences of others, who do[i] not[/i] edit; they take the manuscript as it is, badly ordered though it might be, bloated though it might be, and bring it out as it is (I suppose they might check for spelling mistakes, but that is all, there is no real engagement with the material.) That’s what I mean by saying they are printers. And the worst culprits in this respect are usually also poor at supporting the poet post-publication, poor at pushing the book, poor at launching anything; they expect the poet to do virtually [i]all[/i] the legwork. Which, as you say, is pretty difficult if you are not already well-known.

    I personally would never consider self-publishing. Unless the poet is known already (at least in the region s/he is targetting) and also very good at marketing, I feel that is an unwise move. There is so much ropey stuff self-published, it gives the whole process a bad name.

    I loved your How (not) to Get Your Poetry Published, Nell, it is so astute and funny too. 🙂

  7. Of course there’s something in what you say, Sheila. But it is much easier these days to find out how things work. We will both know some of the imprints you’re talking about. . . 😉 I think such enterprises existed in the late nineteenth century too. There are some very interesting models of co-operative publishing these days, where people combine the requisite skills to produce and promote a small group of intelligent publications. I think there’s huge potential in doing that.

  8. I’m sure you’re right about the nineteenth century, Nell; there have always been rather dodgy publishers, mediocre poets, extraordinarily vain poets, and all manner of folk involved in this weird and wonderful thing called poetry.

    I’ve had a lot of knockbacks, am feeling disillusioned.

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