Why Do Dead Poets Sell More Books Than Live Ones?

From Powells.com :

Top Ten: Thursday, May 15.

For the poets on this list not with us anymore, I understand that that their works have endured long after their deaths for a reason—because they're damn good. But casual readers stick to what they know: dead poets. And there are so many wonderful, talented writers out there if readers would take the time to look for them.

Am I wrong here?


Deb said…
ummmm....Mary Oliver is not dead, and Red Bird is a very new (this year or last) release...


You still have a good, though not flawless, point...
January said…
I know Mary Oliver is not dead, Deb. My point is that the majority of poets on this list are dead, and are top sellers.

Sorry if that wasn't clear.
Jim Brock said…
One funny point is that The Bell Jar isn't even a book of poetry. Sigh.
Anonymous said…
I think people are already so scared of poetry ("I don't/won't understand it") that taking the risk on a name they've never heard is one step too far. I think people are afraid to take a risk on a new name where there isn't already an established opinion - if you read somebody new or "minor", you'll actually have to form your own opinion of the poetry! Which means you'll actually have to think about poetry, and words, and what you like, and why.
Catherine said…
Nor is Seamus Heaney dead, or Billy Collins. I'm not sure about Ginsberg.
I'd rather see books like this on the list, than "100 poems to read at weddings" or "50 poems to get you through hard times" or any of the other pop-psychology pseudo-poetry compilations out there.

Only one book of poetry makes the list of best selling books published in New Zealand, and they set the bar much lower for poetry than other genres in terms of number of copies sold. It was by a poet who's very mcuh alive, but rather over-hyed, in my opinion.
Jim K. said…
Some of it is the simple effects
of time, I think. Look back 5
years. Now look back 150. How
many 'timeless' classics are
made in a year? Like with books,
movies, paintings, sculpture,
buildings, etc. When the past
competes with the present it has
that length thing.
The general public is not at the
party much these days either.
January said…
JimK, very true. It does take a long time for a poem or poet to be considered a classic. And you're right, the readership for poetry is just not there.

But I'm hoping with the scores of MFA programs out there, poetry will have more readers in the next 20 years.
January said…
Catherine, I don't begrudge collections because there are usually a mix of contemporary and classic poems. I'm in favor of them because I do think they introduce moderate readers to different poets.

The bar is set low for poetry sales in the U.S., too. And publishers don't often share sales numbers so it's hard to tell how well a poetry book does.
January said…
Jennifer, I wish poems would find their way into the occasional movie or TV show so people know what they're missing.

Jim, point well taken about the Bell Jar. And it's good to see you online, my dear!
Catherine said…
"Il Postino" is full of Neruda poems - plot line - "Simple Italian postman learns to love poetry while delivering mail to a famous poet; he uses this to woo local beauty Beatrice"
Is Neruda dead?
Since everyone is dead longer than they are alive, the best will have more readers when they are dead than when they are alive. It's simple maths. The worst will be forgotten. Unless they are William McGonigall.
Which live poets do you think most deserve to be at the top of the best-seller list?
January said…
Catherine, to your question:

"Which live poets do you think most deserve to be at the top of the best-seller list?"

This is a subjective answer and very U.S. centric unfortunately. But top of my list would be Robert Hass, who just won the Pulitzer Prize for his most recent book.

But what I would like to see a diversity of poetry winning top prizes and ultimately selling more books. I'd like first-time authors making the list, as well as those publishing second and third books. I'd like to hear from older poets, international poets, and certainly more African American and Asian poets at the top of this list.

And yes, I'd like to see female poets other than Mary Oliver on a top-ten list.

Good question. And now I turn the question over to other bloggers: which live poets should be on a best-sellers list?
Catherine said…
You can't really fit a huge diversity of poets in a top ten - there's only room for ten :) I think what you would like is for things to be more even - wouldn't it be great if 100 different fine poets were first equal in terms of sales.
Some of the poets I'd like to see on the list turn out to be dead anyway. Does a hundred year old living poet deserve to sell more than a much later born poet who died at fifty? For instance, Donald Hall expected his much younger wife Jane Kenyon to outlive him by many years, but she died first. So I can't suggest Jane for the list, much as I'd like to, though I could suggest Donald.

I didn't like Mary Oliver's second volume of collected poems nearly as much as the first. Joyce Sutphen is one lesser known US poet whom I like enough to buy more than one of her books (that's a horrible sentence I know, but I can't think how to repharse it right now)
susan said…
I know exactly what you meant even though the list contains plenty of live poets. You ask the average person to list poets they like or have read and nine out of ten will list a dead poet. If you'd ask them about a living breathing poet that's written something in the last 20 years, they likely couldn't answer. ((sigh)).

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