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These poems will make you rich/attractive/understand the off-side rule

Henry Wallis's portrait of poet Thomas Chatterton (1856)
Market or die?

Lots to think about in this post from Todd Swift, in which he ponders on how to sell poetry, or rather poetry books … he says people only buy stuff that’s going to either inform/advise them about something, or provide entertainment/escapism, and that poetry does ‘neither exactly’.

In the comments, someone points out “that’s why publishers do comparatively well with projects like Heaney’s Beowulf or Armitage’s Odyssey…” because they appeal to a larger class of readers who may not go for poetry as such but fancy brushing up on their ancient texts.

That got me thinking about other possible poetry hybrid forms, but more perhaps on the scale of ‘must have’ information aimed to attract a mass audience. For topics, just look at what’s being advertised everywhere online. How to look younger, find romance, win the lottery, say goodbye to the day job. And then there’s the voracious business market: how to get on in your career, how to close a deal, how to start a business, how to be a social media guru, even how to blog. And what about all those other things people want to know about – what’s going on in Scotland? How does the offside rule work? Could any of these topics lend themselves to a poetic treatment?

Speaking as a marketer, I’m only being half-flippant here. Poetry has tried to follow traditional 20th century advertising techniques, aka interruption marketing (poetry on the tube, poetry falling out of the sky like ticker tape, guerilla poetry inserted in places you wouldn’t expect it, pop-up performances in shopping malls, plus good old flyers and the odd bit of polite email marketing…) But it’s hardly a strategic approach. Where are the poetry marketers, other than publishers trying to sell books? Where are the people who embrace the idea of marketing poetry, rather than seeing it as something necessary but pretty scruffy? Why is it headline news when an estate agent employs a poet to write its property descriptions? There’s joy to be had here – and who knows, even money. We need to think bigger.


Image: detail from Henry Wallis’s portrait of poet Thomas Chatterton dead in his garret (1856) from The Guardian, Poetry needs to move out of the garret for good, 5-Nov-08

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Robin Houghton 2021