What makes poetry so successful?


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On January 20, 2021, Amanda Gorman, National Youth Poet Laureate, performed her poem The hill that we climb during the American presidential inauguration. In less than 24 hours, his books to be published The hill that we climb and Change Sings: a children’s hymn were bestsellers on Amazon, three months before their release date. In April 2021, Penguin Random House announced that both books would get initial print runs of one million copies each, then quickly grew to 1.5 million. In context, at the time of this writing, The hill that we climb is found at 1147 on Amazon’s Global Best Seller List, 11 in Poetry, and 2 in Black and African American Poetry.

It’s easy to see why Ms. Gorman’s work has climbed to the top of all bestseller lists. Her delivery and message were perfect, and she is a beautiful, balanced black woman. At a time when many Americans were hoping for a fundamental change in tone from the former Commander-in-Chief, his work represented a visible and welcome change. The room was deeply moving, and his iconic yellow jacket promised better days.

But what makes a poetry bestseller if you’re not the Poet Laureate?

Let’s start at the beginning, as the King of Hearts once suggested. Poetry is surprisingly difficult to define. A Google search for “what is poetry” returns 1.1 billion results. The Oxford English Dictionary defines poetry as “a work of literature in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas through the use of a distinctive style and rhythm; poems collectively or as a literary genre. While this is helpful, it fails to catch the point, one way or another.

Poetry does not stick to a theme or a yardstick, nor to a fixed length or structure. It is unrelated to story arcs, although many books of poetry do. Poetry volumes can range from a few pages – The hill that we climb is only 32 pages and 723 words long – up to the length of a novel, as in the case of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning Aurora Leigh. My copy of the collected works of EE Cummings is almost 1,300 pages long. To a certain extent, one can only define poetry by what it is not: prose.

So, to have a successful poetry book, we need two things: first and foremost, a poetry book – not as obvious as it sounds, given the breadth of the genre. And second, we need something to compare it to. Unfortunately, when it comes to determining the best-selling books, poetry is lumped together with prose. Pause for a moment and think about how often someone you know has rejected poetry as a genre, and you will get an idea of ​​how difficult it is for a collection of poems to surpass prose, which comes in many ways. many shapes, almost all of which teach us something or have some kind of easily definable narrative arc. It is much easier and more digestible, in general, to pick up the latest novel than a collection of poetry.

A quick comparison of Google search results illustrates this difficulty:

“The best-selling poetry for 10 years” generates 113 million results.
“Best-selling books over the past 10 years” generates 1.3 billion results.

In addition, the best-selling book of the last decade (EL James’s Fifty shades of Grey in 2011) sold 15.2 million copies. In contrast, in April 2016, Publisher’s Weekly published an article titled “How to Sell Nearly Half a Million Copies of a Book of Poetry, calling Rupi Kaur’s milk and honey a “blockbuster of poetry”. To date it has sold 2.5 million copies, which is an incredible achievement, and still only 37% of the 10th best-selling book of the decade, Veronica Roth’s Divergent to 6.6 million copies sold.

While researching this topic, I came across two interesting trends. First of all, no two lists of best-selling poetry books can agree on what should actually be on the list. BookAuthority.com has How the Grinch Stole Christmas! at the top of the list, while Amazon cites Rumi: A new translation of selected poems, and Barnes & Noble says it is Egghead: Or, you can’t survive on ideas alone. A Google search returns options to buy what you’d expect: Homer, Shakespeare, Maya Angelou, Mary Oliver, and, naturally, Rupi Kaur and Amanda Gorman.

The second interesting trend is that people who see themselves as the authority on the matter continually reiterate the important note that “better” does not mean “best selling”, to which I respond, “but are you sure, though? Because while there are absolutely the same issues of classism, racism and misogyny in poetry publishing as in prose publishing, some of the best-selling poets right now are women of color. There is this problem with reviews where they feel the need to announce that what is popular is not Well; this is a false equivalence, as popularity is measured in sales data while kindness is a matter of opinion, and also the older generations have bemoaned the inability of young people to get out of their lawns for at least 10 years. ‘time of Aristotle, and I would bet much longer. The more i As Rupi Kaur and Amanda lovelace.

So we come back to the main question: what makes a book of poetry a bestseller?

As far as I know, it boils down to two things: readability and connecting with readers. Because publishers know that poetry is a tough sell overall – you might even call it a niche – poets who want to break into this elusive bestseller list need to be able to prove that their work will win back. advance. To do this, it is useful to have a parcel of followers on social networks. Having an aesthetically pleasing arrangement of words in poetry has almost always been as important as the words themselves, and social media – especially Instagram – lends itself to that. I am as drawn to a well-organized flow as I am to a well-turned sentence.

To write a best-selling poetry book, you need to have a perfect concoction of the right amount of buzz, the right look, the right background, and the right editor / editor combination to get the work out of the dark pile. Much like producing a script, it’s a combination of hard work and luck.

And at the same time, there’s a deeper reason why female poets do particularly well: These poets speak of our need for connection as humans living in a kyriarchy. Just like the cultural phenomenon that was Betty Friedan The feminine mystique, women constantly realize that, in fact, we don’t go through all of this :: vaguely :: waves alone. Having someone who writes lyrical lyrics or haunting words that echo my own experiences makes me feel less isolated. Modern poetry, in particular, is about moments of connection on an emotional level. Watching someone have an all too human experience that leaves most of us sobbing on the floor with a pint of ice cream and a bottle of wine, but instead (or maybe in addition) take it and do something beautiful and relatable? It gives us hope that we too will come out on the other side of this rift, this family, this pandemic with more than scars to show.

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