Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o'ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O! how shall summer's honey breath hold out,
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O! none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
Shakespeare Sonnet 65
One of the reasons poets want their poems published is so they’ll live on, after their death —the poems, I mean — though there’s a sense in which we want to believe a bit of the author is preserved along with them. If a UK book or pamphlet has an ISB number, copies will nestle in the copyright libraries forever. Or not. There are six mandatory receiving libraries in the UK. (In Poland there are 19).
There is a cost to this for publishers, of course, and also for the libraries. Cambridge University Library has been a legal deposit library since 1710. It currently houses its print contents over 100 miles of shelving, expanding at the rate of two miles per year.
Still it’s a comfort to know that once a book is positioned securely somewhere in those 100 miles, it’s safe. The words between the covers are protected from ‘the wrackful siege of battering days’ for a good while.
But publishing dead poets is problematic – unless the authors have already achieved school textbook status and outlasted copyright restrictions. Poets like Keats and Shakespeare sell well (in the context of a genre whose sales stats sink the heart). Other poets sell poorly at the best of times, and if they’re no longer around to help promote . . .
Because increasingly living poets have a dynamic role as marketers and promoters of their own books. They announce publication in social networks; some of them blog online; they work hard to get online reviews and offline readings. They ask all their friends to write to Poetry Please and request them. Publishers mainly don’t do this any more, if they ever did.
Living poets are placed between two stools. On the one hand, many of them are modest, bookish people. On the other, they are producing their own promotional text, with varying degrees of unease. Some of them turn out to be amazingly good at it. Others are frankly terrible.
Dead poets are spared this. With luck, some of their friends will continue to promote their book(s). But with the best will in the world, enthusiasm vacillates and wavers over time.
And other factors come into play. The work of dead poets is hard to get reviewed, even if the publisher is sending out myriad copies. Many publications don’t review the work of dead poets as standard policy. There are too many books every year from living poets clamouring for attention.
Dead poets can’t apply for grants or residencies. Dead poets can’t take on commissions. Dead poets can’t answer letters. Dead poets can’t network or blog. Dead poets can’t appear at festivals. Dead poets can’t write new topical poems. Dead poets can’t upload recordings on YouTube or SoundCloud.
And books of dead poets are usually ineligible for prizes and awards. The Forward Prize, for example, stipulates that ‘work submitted on behalf of an author who is deceased at the date of publication of the work is not eligible.’ What does a dead poet need with a cash prize? But it’s not the cash. It’s the attention that both the dead and the living most need. That’s what brings readers to poems.
If the poet is not there demanding attention, who is doing it for them?
The original idea was that the poems would continue doing the job. ‘Time’s best jewel’ would ‘still shine bright’ in ‘black ink’. People would read the printed poems and share them. That phenomenon known as ‘word of mouth’ would do the business.
Theoretically ‘word of mouth’ is more powerful than ever before. Publishers are keen to exploit the possibility that any text could go viral. It worked for J K Rowling. So far as I know, it has never (yet) worked for poetry.
Where am I going with this? HappenStance has just published a book of poetry by a dead poet. The Years, by Tom Duddy, will not be promoted or circulated by Tom Duddy, though his friends and family will do their best. It will not be entered for any prizes. It will gradually find its way to a number of very good readers: at least I hope it will. It is a beautiful book with the highest production quality we could get. There are times when an absolute belief in the work must override all other considerations. This is one of those times.
Meanwhile, a living HappenStance poet, C J Driver, will be taking part in a memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Westminster Abbey at noon on March 3rd. Among other words, Jonty will be upholding the faith by sharing a bit of Shakespeare, undying proof that some poetry really does endure.