Monday, 28 January 2008

Glasgow. Brodsky. Babel

15,000 free copies of a selection of 50 poems by Edwin Morgan will be distributed free throughout Glasgow in March (reported the Guardian on Saturday). What a bloody fantastic way to honour the man, and the people of Glasgow.

In 1991 Joseph Brodsky made what he called an immodest proposal. He noted that ‘the standard number of copies of a first or second collection by any poet in this country [the US] is something between 2,000 and 10,000 (and I speak of the commercial houses only). The latest census that I've seen gives the population of the United States as approximately 250 million. This means that a standard commercial publishing house, printing this or that author’s first or second volume, aims at only 0.001 percent of the entire population. To me, this is absurd.’ On the basis that ‘throughout what we call recorded history, the audience for poetry does not appear to have exceeded 1 per cent of the entire population’, he proposed that poetry be published in editions of 2.5 million – and argued that far from being childish idealism, this would make good economic sense: ‘A book of poetry printed in 2.5 million copies and priced at, say, $2, will in the end bring in more than 10,000 copies of the same edition priced at $20. You may encounter, of course, a problem of storage, but then you’ll be compelled to distribute as far and wide as the country. Moreover, if the government would recognize that the construction of your library is as essential to your inner vocation as business lunches are to your outer vocation, tax breaks could be made available to those who read, write, or publish poetry. The main loser, of course, would be the Brazilian rain forest. But I believe that a tree facing the choice between becoming a book of poems or a bunch of memos may well opt for the former.’

Poetry and readers: he believed in both. ‘Fifty million copies of an anthology of American poetry for $2 a copy can be sold in a country of 250 million. Perhaps not at once, but gradually, over a decade or so, they will sell. Books find their readers. And if they will not sell, well, let them lie around, absorb dust, rot, and disintegrate. There is always going to be a child who will fish a book out of the garbage heap. I was such a child, for what it’s worth; so, perhaps, were some of you.’

In 1993 the American Poetry and Literacy Project – a non-profit organisation, run by volunteers – was set up by a young writer, Andrew Carroll, with Brodsky’s support. To date it has distributed more than a million free poetry books in schools, subways, bus stations, supermarkets, day-care centres, etc.

In the UK we have the outfits who put poetry on buses and the Tube. And now we have the councillors of Glasgow. All hail.

PS – yesterday was the anniversary of the deathday of Isaac Babel, which the CBe authors (those still alive) and I marked with Polish stew and black vodka. Today is the anniversary of the deathday (in 1996) of Brodsky. Read a poem. Pour another vodka.

1 comment:

rb said...

i was such a child, still am, more or less