Sunday 29 January 2012

A century ago

Matthew Hollis’s Now All Roads Lead to France, winner of the Costa biography prize and so very nearly overall winner, is a lovely book. Today’s lesson is taken from one of the early chapters:

‘Rupert Brooke was a frequent guest at Edward Marsh’s apartment in Gray’s Inn, London, and one night in September 1912 he and Marsh sat up late, discussing how best to shake the public of their ignorance of contemporary poetry. There and then, they counted a dozen poets worth publishing, and put the idea of an anthology to [Harold] Munro. Five hundred copies were printed: half received on 16 December 1912, the remainder on Christmas Eve; all were sold by Christmas Day. A reprint was hurried through, then another and another. By the end of its first year, the book was in its ninth printing and was on its way to 15,000 sales. The name of this remarkable anthology was Georgian Poetry.’

15,000 copies of a book of poems by writers unknown to the general reading public, from a publisher equally unknown. Of poems of a kind – ‘Georgian’ – that, even as the book was being printed, was being put out to grass by Pound and Imagism and then Eliot and all that followed.

The first (and in most cases last) print run of a poetry book put out now by, say, Faber, is – an educated guess – perhaps 3,000. Sales of many poetry books, good poetry books, put out by small presses struggle to reach 100. And the UK population, by the way, is now 50 per cent bigger than it was in 1912.

Given that books do not now occupy as central a position in the culture as they once did (and that even within books, poetry is marginal), does that leave those of us who still engage with the stuff – as writers, as readers, as publishers – like a soon-to-be-extinct tribe on the Andaman Islands, whose language will cease when they do? No, because there was poetry before books and there will be after. But meanwhile, it’s damn hard to sell the things.


Sheila Bounford said...

In the overall scheme of things, (i.e. from the ancient world to the present and beyond) poets and publishers have only actually expected to sell poetry books for a very short period of time.
I don't despair that poetry isn't sold in the volumes it was. Music and songs are sold in much greater volumes, and poetry is written, performed and shared in all sorts of contexts, and has broken out of its elite middle class straitjacket.
Yes it would be great if publishers of poetry could sell more. But the fact that they don't doesn't make me despair.

charles said...

No, not despair. The channels are still open and, as you say, open in more various ways than before. There's some frustration, from a small-press perspective, that while the ways in which poetry is being written and published have changed and are continuously evolving, the lordly establishment means by which this work is made widely known has on the whole not, but this comes with the job.