The Problem with Poetry

For the record, just because a par­tic­u­lar notion is repeat­ed, over and over again, does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly make it true. The earth is not flat, nor is it the cen­ter of the uni­verse. Peo­ple of African descent are not intel­lec­tu­al­ly infe­ri­or to the white race. And con­trary to what you may have heard, over the years, from (well-mean­ing?) edi­tors and agents, poet­ry can, and does, sell.

Par­don me if I pre­sume to know what I’m talk­ing about, but I am, in fact, sit­ting on a love­ly sofa, set in a small, but beau­ti­ful home, paid for by a career built on writ­ing chil­dren’s poet­ry and nov­els-in-verse. I believe that qual­i­fies to say a thing or two on the sub­ject, yes?

Poetry booksI recent­ly spoke at a con­fer­ence at which I heard it stat­ed, unequiv­o­cal­ly, that poet­ry does­n’t sell. When those words hit the air, I want­ed to leap out of my skin. I’ve been hear­ing that old adage since I first entered this field more than 30 years ago. Had I, for a moment, tak­en that oft-repeat­ed state­ment to heart, I’d have no career. The 50-plus books I’ve pub­lished, most of them chil­dren’s poet­ry, or nov­els-in-verse, would not exist. I would nev­er have won the NCTE Award for Excel­lence in Chil­dren’s Poet­ry, nor awards for my body of work, or the ALA Nota­bles, Coret­ta Scott King Award and Hon­ors, or any of the oth­er awards and cita­tions my poet­ry has earned. None of it would exist if I’d believed that well-worn idea.

To be fair, if you are a poet, it is high­ly unlike­ly that you will become wealthy work­ing in this genre, no mat­ter how well you hone your craft. That much is true. But chances are, you already know that. I would wager that most writ­ers, keen on this par­tic­u­lar genre, aren’t look­ing to make a killing in the mar­ket­place. They sim­ply have a pen­chant for the lyri­cal line, and a pas­sion for metaphor. Like me, they pen poet­ry because they, quite frankly, can’t help them­selves. Poet­ry is in them. It’s part of their DNA. Poets don’t val­ue their work in terms of fis­cal weight, and that’s where we dif­fer from agents and editors.

Agents and pub­lish­ers are in the busi­ness of mak­ing mon­ey by sell­ing books. We all under­stand that, although I wish inter­est in pro­duc­ing a rich and diverse vari­ety of qual­i­ty lit­er­a­ture for the next gen­er­a­tion, were more wide­spread. Still, we should­n’t be sur­prised when agents and pub­lish­ers push for vam­pire lore while the genre is hot, or dis­cour­age dystopi­an nov­els when they feel the trend is wan­ing. Not so long ago, writ­ers were dis­suad­ed from cre­at­ing books for teens, as there was yet no per­ceived mar­ket for them. That makes sense, right?

But. Aren’t we glad Judy Blume ignored the naysay­ers, back in the bad old days, and wrote nov­els for teens any­way? Aren’t we glad Jack Pre­lut­sky and Shel Sil­ver­stein beat the poet­ry drum before verse was in vogue? Aren’t we grate­ful for Myra Cohn Liv­ingston, and Eloise Green­field, and Lucille Clifton, and Arnold Adoff, and a host of oth­er poets who’ve enriched the lives of young readers?

poetry books and books-in-verse

I attend­ed the first inau­gu­ra­tion of Pres­i­dent Oba­ma, in 2009. One of my favorite moments of the cer­e­mo­ny was the read­ing of a poem. I love that poet­ry has played a part in inau­gur­al cel­e­bra­tions of the past. Each time a poet has risen to that great podi­um it is a reminder that this genre has some­thing sub­stan­tial to offer. Poet­ry can pro­voke, chal­lenge, dis­turb. It can soothe our souls, or spur us on to great­ness. It can inspire, uplift, and make the heart soar. How­ev­er, poet­ry can accom­plish none of these things if it is not written.

I’m all for being hon­est with poets about the real­i­ties of the mar­ket­place. I know that poet­ry, in the main, does not sell as well as prose. But it can, and does, sell. Is the field extra­or­di­nar­i­ly com­pet­i­tive? Absolute­ly. Is craft­ing qual­i­ty poet­ry dif­fi­cult? Of course it is. All good writ­ing involves a huge invest­ment of time, ener­gy, and often, research. But that’s a lousy excuse for telling a gift­ed poet, who has a han­ker­ing for haiku, who eats and sleeps sim­i­le, who mires him­self in metaphor that he or she should give up the very idea of pen­ning poet­ry as a lit­er­ary career.

Here are a few thoughts: the next time you come across a poet who clear­ly demon­strates a gift for this genre, don’t tell him to hide his light under a bas­ket. Instead, tell poets to be smart about their choice of sub­ject, to research the mar­ket to make sure their ideas haven’t already been done, to con­sid­er the needs of school cur­ricu­lum and shape their work accord­ing­ly so that their books of poet­ry will be as mar­ketable as pos­si­ble. Encour­age them to con­sid­er nar­ra­tive books in verse—novels, biogra­phies, his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, cre­ative non-fiction.

On the oth­er hand, if the writer has no gift for this genre, tell him so. If his poet­ry is not top­i­cal, tell him that. If his poet­ry is not age-appro­pri­ate, tell him that. If you, per­son­al­ly, lack the know-how, or frankly, the inter­est in sell­ing poet­ry, tell him that. But please, what­ev­er you do, don’t tell a poet not to be a poet. That’s a bit like telling a leop­ard not to have spots!

ph_novelsinverseOne last thing: While poet­ry may, indeed, be dif­fi­cult to place, it is not impos­si­ble. So please, please stop telling tomor­row’s poets that poet­ry does­n’t sell. If you do, you might as well tell them that New York Times best­seller Ellen Hop­kins is a fig­ment of our col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion; that Sonya Sones and Prince Hon­oree Helen Frost do not exist; that New­bery Hon­oree Joyce Sid­man does not exist; that J. Patrick Lewis, and Nao­mi Shi­hab Nye, and Paul B. Janeczko, and Jack Pre­lut­sky, and Sara Hol­brook, and Jamie Adoff, and Tony Med­i­na, and Mar­i­lyn Nel­son, and Geor­gia Heard, and Mar­i­lyn Singer, and X.J. Kennedy, and Jane Yolen, and Mar­gari­ta Engle, and Lee Ben­nett Hop­kins, and Pat Mora, and Allan Wolf, and Gary Soto, and Eloise Green­field, and Nik­ki Grimes, and a host of oth­er work­ing, pub­lish­ing, award-win­ning poets do not exist. And that, my dears, sim­ply isn’t true.

35 Responses

  1. Ms. Grimes, thank you. I write poet­ry, I read poet­ry, I lis­ten to poet­ry. I am immers­ing my 6th grade stu­dents (hav­ing immersed myself first) in a mass of verse nov­els at present, sev­er­al of which are yours.

    You inspire me.

  2. THANK YOU!!
    I feel your pas­sion. In fact, I start­ed read­ing faster with more con­vic­tion as I read through your blog. 

    Please indulge a poet­ry plug and con­sid­er attend­ing Austin Inter­na­tion­al Poet­ry Fes­ti­val for their 21st anniver­sary April 11–14 in Austin, TX. See for more details.

    1. Sounds like a great fes­ti­val! Per­haps I’ll be invit­ed, one of these years. My sched­ule won’t allow for me to come this year, in any case.

      Thanks for tak­ing the time to leave a nice comment!

  3. Very well said, Nik­ki — I hope agents, edi­tors, and pub­lish­ers read this! As some­one who’s been strug­gling to find pub­li­ca­tion, it’s reas­sur­ing to know there might be a light at the end of the prover­bial tun­nel. Per­son­al­ly, I’ve nev­er under­stand the ratio­nale behind the idea that poet­ry does­n’t sell; if young chil­dren love nurs­ery rhymes and sin­ga­longs, old­er kids enjoy rhyming pic­ture books, and teenagers can’t even func­tion with­out their iPods, why WOULDN’T poet­ry sell??

    Keep up the good work, and thanks for posting.

  4. Amen, Nik­ki! I so agree. And not only do poets cre­ate amaz­ing work and not only does poet­ry sell, KIDS LOVE POETRY! They take to it eas­i­ly and nat­u­ral­ly and musi­cal­ly. It’s the adult gate­keep­ers of agen­cies, pub­lish­ing hous­es, schools and libraries who are reveal­ing their igno­rance or naivete when they make such claims that poet­ry has no audi­ence. Kids love the humor, rhythm, and pathos of poet­ry– and they deserve the best and plen­ty of it!

    1. You, my friend, are one of the rea­sons our poet­ry con­tin­ues to sell! Thanks for all you do to pro­mote it. And thanks for tak­ing time to leave your won­der­ful comment.

  5. Great arti­cle!

    As a haiku poet, and one who earns mon­ey from run­ning online and ‘phys­i­cal’ work­shops on haiku (and tan­ka) it’s often seen as a dirty pro­fes­sion by some who feel we should­n’t make mon­ey from it, and dirty by those who feel we should.

    There are young peo­ple com­ing to poet­ry and earn­ing mon­ey because they work hard and audi­ences delight in them. I have twen­ty years of encour­ag­ing poets from all dis­ci­plines, regard­less of their age, to have a go, work at it, perser­vere, and you’ll be rewarded.

    I’m hard­ly proven wrong, not because I’m wise (although wis­dom comes from mak­ing a hel­lu­va lot of mis­takes ) but some­one who sees it as a job, a pro­fes­sion, a pas­sion and love of their life all rolled into one, they are going to succeed.

    Alan, With Words

  6. Thank you, Nik­ki, for post­ing this. And for men­tion­ing my very first pro­fes­sor in Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture and poet­ry, the won­der­ful Lucille Clifton. I am indebt­ed to poets of your gen­er­a­tion for inspir­ing me. Thank you!

    1. You were indeed blessed to have Lucille Clifton as your pro­fes­sor! She ranks at the very top of my list of great poets. She was also just a love­ly, love­ly woman. Stay inspired!

  7. I love every word of this, from love­ly sofa to lyri­cal poets. Thank you, Nik­ki, for your inspi­ra­tion, insight, and wise advice. May all of us who love and believe in the impor­tance of chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture con­tin­ue to grow a col­lec­tive body of poet­ic work with the sub­stance, excel­lence, and imag­i­na­tion young read­ers thrive on.

  8. Fab­u­lous post! You put every­thing so beautifully.
    I have a verse nov­el com­ing out with FSG in 2013 — and I’m so, so glad I did­n’t lis­ten to the per­son who told me (when I was at a ten­der age) that I would “nev­er get any­where writ­ing poetry”.

  9. Dear Nik­ki, I do love your pos­i­tive atti­tude and yes, I would nev­er have been pub­lished if I had­n’t had hope, per­sis­tence and will­ing­ness to learn my craft. But here in the UK, the poet­ry mar­ket has almost van­ished. Many of my pub­lish­ers have stopped doing poet­ry lists and also, many schools that once bought my poet­ry books, includ­ing antholo­gies and verse nov­els, now only take free mate­r­i­al from the net, par­tic­u­lar­ly since the reces­sion. I still believe in the impor­tance in poet­ry for young peo­ple as it is where I start­ed 25 years ago, and have been hon­oured to get ALA notable and the Clau­dia Lewis poet­ry award for Here’s a Lit­tle poem, which I did with Jane Yolen. So, in the US I can still see a vibrant mar­ket. But sad­ly, most of my income now is from fic­tion and a new col­lec­tion of nature poems for chil­dren will prob­a­bly only find a home with one of the small press­es. But I will keep writ­ing, as that is what I do best {and per­form­ing in schools} All best, Andrew Fusek Peters

  10. It is no sur­prise that even this essay about poet­ry is poet­ic. There are so many lines and phras­es to love in this piece: “Poets don’t val­ue their work in terms of fis­cal weight…” and “…a gift­ed poet, who has a han­ker­ing for haiku, who eats and sleeps sim­i­le, who mires him­self in metaphor…”

    I, too, an enam­ored with the fact that the U.S. has a poet lau­re­ate. It is, admit­ted­ly, the only rea­son I look for­ward to the Pres­i­den­tial inau­gur­al address no mat­ter who is speaking.

    I am an 8th grade lan­guage arts teacher and I have many of the books in your pic­tures on my class­room library shelves. Not only do I pur­chase a great deal of poet­ry, but stu­dents READ it! I can’t even count how many copies of Bronx Mas­quer­ade I’ve pur­chased because year after year my stu­dents love the life right out of my copies. Thanks for writ­ing the poet­ry and shar­ing your voice here.

  11. Hi. This is Paula Yoo. I took your poet­ry class at the SCBWI Writ­ers Day con­fer­ence this past week­end. It was an hon­or to study with you and I learned a lot. Thank you! I read your lat­est blog and agree with your assess­ment. #Team­Po­et­ry! 🙂 PS. I also post­ed a blog about your won­der­ful class. Thank you again for your amaz­ing class. Sin­cere­ly, Paula

  12. Thank you, Nik­ki Grimes! Read­ing your work and some of the oth­ers that you men­tioned, give me great hope. Maybe poet­ry isn’t as easy to mar­ket, but it cer­tain­ly feeds the soul.

  13. Thank you Nik­ki for your inspir­ing piece. I am an Irish woman liv­ing in
    Provence France. I have a body of work wait­ing for a home between pages. Your words, so encour­ag­ing, are help­ing me to find the ener­gy to find a pub­lish­er. I organ­ise a Poet­ry Cor­ner in Aix en Provence…you are always welcome.

    With every good wish,
    Sheigh­le Birdthistle.

  14. Thank you Nik­ki. I was told by an edu­ca­tion­al pub­lish­er that I must find a chil­dren’s lit­er­ary agent in order to sub­mit my work to him. I spent the whole of last year going through the Chil­dren’s Writ­ers’ & Artists’ Year­book but not one would touch poet­ry and yet I’ve mar­ket-researched these poems on thou­sands of chil­dren and their teach­ers and they are much loved. Can you rec­om­mend anyone?

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