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What Makes You Buy A Poetry Collection?

Towards the end of the comments on our article on poetry reviews, a discussion arose on how people found poetry and decided to buy it, which seemed like an important topic in itself.

As little as ten years ago, my poetry book buying habits were easy to pin down. I’d go to the new flagship Waterstones in Glasgow (it seemed a benign development at the time with the café, comfy chairs scattered around, and extensive stock) and peruse the poetry shelves. There were plenty of them. I hadn’t read much at the time and I remember finding an American edition of John Ashbery’sThe Tennis Court Oath, one of his most difficult collections, and feeling a mixture of shock, intrigue and impatience. The point is – Waterstones had a copy on the shelves. They stocked loads of poetry volumes. I leafed through books and found poetry, by trial and error, that appealed to me.

A decade on, things have changed completely. I still stumble across some fantastic collections in the shrinking poetry sections of bookshops, but not often

How do I find books these days? I decided to examine the last five poetry collections I’ve read (other than those I’ve been asked to review). How did I come across them?

1. Chronic – D.A. Powell (Graywolf Press, 2009)

This was recommended on a poetry board. It’s a book I would never have come across in pre-Internet days. In fact, it wouldn’t have been readily available because it hasn’t (yet) been published in the UK. I found some work online and read a review. It sounded really interesting, and so it proved.

2. Nights in the Iron Hotel – Michael Hofmann (Faber 1983)

I hadn’t read much Hofmann before last year. I was browsing in Borders bookshop and picked up his Selected Poems. I only had time to read two or three poems quickly, but was taken aback by how good they were. I mentioned it to a friend who found it in a bookshop and bought it. He then emailed me to tell me I had to buy it, so I did. I’ve now read all Hofmann’s individual collections. This one, the first, was hardest to find at a half-reasonable price, but I persevered and bought it second-hand online.

3. MUDe – John Redmond (Carcanet 2008)

I found this one through a Facebook status update. A poet whose book I had enjoyed mentioned how good MUDe was. Online, I read a little information about it. It certainly sounded different and I decided to take a chance.

4. Fruitcake – Selima Hill (Bloodaxe 2009)

I’d read ‘A Little Book of Meat’ on a personal recommendation, and then read a fair bit of her Collected Poems, ‘Gloria’. On an online poetry discussion forum, people were discussing what poetry books they were looking forward to for 2009. I tried to check what was forthcoming and found, at the Bloodaxe website, that a new Hill book was due. What stuck in my mind was that it was over 250 pages long – very long for a collection. Of course, most of the poems are very short.

5. Sills – Michael O’Brien (Salt 2009)

I found this selected poems at the Salt website, during the ‘Just One Book’ campaign. It is a bit like browsing a bookstore there. I had never heard of Michael O’Brien, but I could see the cover, blurbs, and a selection of poems. Blurbs do help if they’re the right kind – August Kleinzahler calling it a “large event: our first comprehensive look at a neglected American master” certainly got me interested. Yes, I am obviously a sucker, but the book is pretty good.

So what makes YOU buy a poetry collection?

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This Post Has 32 Comments
  1. Actually, and this may be an unhappy surprise, seldom from reviews, where between the erudite (or not so) comments we’re given fragments of the work. I’m much more likely to hunt up a poet if I’ve seen a full poem published somewhere — on line or in print. I recently spotted Ian Duhig in Ruth Padel’s ’60 Poems for the Journey of Life’, and intend to buy a collection of his.

  2. I follow up on these leads: (1) Seeing a poem I like in a magazine or newspaper. (2) Hearing friends praise a book. (3) Reading a review of a new book and liking quoted lines, especially when the comment on them is illuminating. (4) The serendipitous discovery of a book at a well-stocked poetry shelf at Foyle’s or Blackwell’s.

  3. 1)I subscribe to Poetry Book Society which sends four editor-selected books a year. I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen these otherwise, but this way I extend my knowledge of great contemporary poets. I don’t always like them but it’s good to keep up with what other poets (the changing editors are all poets) think are the poets that matter. Sometimes, a poet’s work I didn’t understand or respond to years ago, I find now excites me so it’s a wonderful resource to have built up a library c/o the PBS choices over the years.
    2) I buy collections of poets whose work I have seen in literary magazines or whom I have heard perform at readings and whose work inspires or moves me, in the hope that by studying them it will extend my own range as a poet.
    3) I buy collections or pamphlets by friends whose work I admire or who I think have talent pour encourager les autres.

  4. The most recent books I bought were by Alison Brackenbury, Andrew Motion and Carol Ann Duffy. I bought the Alison Brackenbury because she circulates a poem a month on Facebook and theyr’e so fabulous. I hadn’t read her poems before so Facebook really introduced me to a new favourite poet. The internet is a main way I choose books. I bought Andrew’s as I know him from readings and events, and did a course with him. The Carol Ann Duffy was a book I had sold secondhand and missed too much so I wanted it back.

    The next book I buy will be by Pascale Petit as she’s an all-time favourite of mine. I discovered her when she was one of the 20 poets chosen as the best to emerge in the previous 10 years and I heard her reading in the Bloomsbury Theatre with all the others. She was electrifying. I also knew her from magazines as she edited one and published a friend of mine. Les Murray’s recommendation of her as one of the top few women poets in the world also influenced me.

    I discovered Tobias Hill, Alice Oswald and Robin Robertson at the ‘best new poets’ event too and buy all their books so events and awards do help. I do discover a lot of writers I like because they share on the internet, though. That’s probably the main place and I will buy books by poets because I feel they’ve made contact and I’ve got to know them online. Being able to ask for a signed copy of a book by a poet whose poems I’ve seen and liked online is becoming one of my main ways to choose.

  5. Poet friends do recommend books too and I agree with Michelle that friends are a big influence. I bought Dorothy Molloy because a friend liked her.

  6. Knowing and liking the poet’s work, from mags, anthologies or online, will do it. I found Paul Durcan first in an anthology which otherwise didn’t appeal to me at all (The New Poetry). Recommendations, yes, but not always reliable – sometimes a poet I like very much recommends a book by another poet which does nothing for me! Reviews – depends entirely who is writing the review and whether I respect them. If I don’t, a “good” review will tend to put me off the book, on the Hemingway principle of “if this bastard likes it, what is wrong with it?”

    There’s no substitute for seeing the work, IMO.

  7. My approach is roughly the same as Alfred Corn’s. An interesting review leads me to look further into the author’s work, and if I like what I find, I’ll order it; same with enjoying a poet’s work in a magazine. Friends often make recommendations I follow up. Rarely do I go into a bookstore and buy the book of a poet entirely unknown to me; there are always poets whose work has interested me before but whose books I have yet to buy, and if I see their titles on the shelves, I’ll pick them up to investigate further.

    Additionally, I know certain presses tend to produce work I like, such as Graywolf, Carcanet, and Shearsman, so I keep an eye on such presses’ new releases.

  8. I buy poetry collections mostly because I’ve enjoyed reading the poets work in anthologies or magazines or online. I sometimes buy books at performances if I like the poet enough (I bought two of Polly Clark’s collections after a recent performance of hers, even buying the one i had already read twice). I buy almost randomly in second hand shops, so that I can get more of a picture of what’s out there than i would otherwise be able to afford to do.

  9. Like Carrie I keep an eye on publishers I like. The last three books I bought because I heard the poets read at Shearsman readings. I’m also part of a poetry book group and we tend to choose poets who are not in the mainstream in order to broaden our reading. I do take note of reviews, printed and online and recommendations from people whose work I admire. I don’t usually buy from browsing shelves or reading individual poems in magazines – I like to see a wider selection of a poets work. I bought Luke Kennards work because he reviewed mine! – and because I thought I’d like it. I buy new collections of poets I know I like. In this way I add to the growing pile of books by my bedside yet to be read.

  10. I often buy collections at readings. This is an unreliable method. The experience of hearing the work often draws me to it, but I’m still learning to tell the difference between a good reader and a good poem. Sometimes an excellent reading can make the work sound much more accomplished and interesting than it is. Conversely, even a brilliant poet who mumbles into the microphone, doesn’t make contact with the audience and looks as if they wish they were somewhere else can make listeners feel uncomfortable and do the work a disservice.

    Obviously if the quality of the reading and the poetry are equally high, that’s when I’m glad I spent my money and added more weight to my groaning bookshelves.

  11. Like Michelle, I buy based on recommendations from poet friends (like her!). I also attend quite a few poetry readings and will pick up books there — the fantastic Poetry Monday at The Troubadour costs me plenty 🙂 . I do buy based on reviews, though as I said last week, based on the paucity of quotes in reviews, I usually have to do follow-up research online. And if I go into London, I try and get to Foyles. If I come across a poet I really like, I will also buy up their previous books (though it’s frustrating how many are out of print).

  12. Ordinary minds think alike.

    I chose the exact same book whilst engaged in the exact same activity Rob.

    Sill by Micael OBrien, when trawling through the pdf’s after promising a guardian books blog poster in Cambridge called kolf, who works in mass publishing and is a big cheerleader of Salt, that i was going to buy four books from them.

    This was on Shirley Dents Salt blog the other week.

    I had a look at most of the pdfs and just went on instinct and followed Hamilton Emery’s advice:

    “Everything is about first lines, the first verse, the first poem. I desperately want to reject you and you have to convince me in the first piece of writing that I shouldn’t…good writing is easy to spot; it takes 4.2 seconds to discover you want to read something. You can certainly spot good writing (it’s what you buy).

    And though we shouldn’t go by pictures, one look at O’Brien after reading the first poem whose lyrical grace immediately fulfilled Hamilton Emery’s litmus test – was enough to know, here’s a person who as been at it years and by the looks of him, (as little as one can tell from such things) has that look about him that screeches authenticity.

    As soon as I read:

    plaintive as the applause of palms ;
    under the rain the green goes dark..

    ..I knew, this was the real gear. Simple words in startling order, following the Horace maxim, the age old unchanging unimprovable original rules, plaintive as the applause of palms – on those words alone, the femminine heavy plosive sibliance just bill and coo’s us in.

    It’s actually in Waterstones now. I got the other three, Ron Silliman’s memoir Under Albany and the Iain Higgins translation of Adam Czerniawski’s collection: The Invention of Poetry.

  13. It has to be the first line hook. If I find a poem that gets me from the first line and then takes me to visit the country of another mind or off on a tangent of my own, then I will buy and buy. Friends and tutors offer a wealth of wares to sample.Some day soon my loft room will fall into the bathroom on the next floor, I have so many books up here. Guilty secret… sometimes the cover tempts me, if the artwork is outstanding, don’t tell anyone though.

  14. It varies with me. Sometimes it comes from going to readings and liking what I hear. At other times its from following names of poets I like and reading their lates addition to their opus. Then there are reviews and articles. Sometimes something there clicks and suggest something of interest. This can even be a quote. And finally, there are those random browsings in bookshops. I’ve discovered a number if fqavourite books that gave me hours of repeated reading just from a sudden discovery in the poetry section.

  15. When I am rich enough (not too often unfortunately) I tend to buy collections at readings (also the money goes straight to the poet). I am influenced by reviews, by what friends recommend and even (if I’m honest) by the cover – some are so dull that they don’t do what’s inside any favours whatsoever. I’m also a member of the PBS so get 4 books a year that I might not have chosen, and that can be great – I discovered one of my all time fave poets Robin Robertson that way!

  16. A good reading from a poet who writes movingly. Although sometimes sheer wit will win the day. Mostly I just want to study the poem to see how effects are achieved, and buying the book rather than having to borrow it from the library is usually more comfortable for this type of reading.

    Just as with any other book, you read it in the shop generally and if you’re blown over by it you have to have it. Obviously, there’s the recommendation-by-friends type of buy, but this generally applies to the more impenetrable stuff I feel I have to study and don’t necessarily enjoy instantly – the ‘growers’, as it were. These books are probably always going to be the more difficult to sell, and anyway people will generally lend them to you to see if you like them first.

    Also, there’s the type of poetry which takes me by surprise. If it’s by a poet I didn’t think I’d enjoy but ultimately breaks down whatever prejudices I felt I had but seemed unsheddable. This can be good for writing as well as reading as it helps you realise different ways of approaching difficult subjects.

    But that’s all writing-orientated, I suppose. Sometimes you just want to look at something completely different from your own or something totally beyond your experience or achievement which gives you fresh eyes on the world.

    I think it’s unfortunate that so many poetry publishers die because they don’t think commercially – most businesses recognise there has to be a mainstay to support the more adventurous ‘product’. That’s just fact, and the sooner it’s acknowledged, the quicker some houses will realise they have to get off their high horses and not nudge the people they really want to publish out of the market. It’s like having a fish and chip shop without salt and vinegar and mushy peas, or chip butties. Or even fish butties (they don’t seem to do those in Norwich I noticed, I was shocked).

    Poetry probably doesn’t get bought as much in general as it simply isn’t in the shops – there’s no faith in the market, perhaps because it’s so diverse and can’t be conveniently categorised by booksellers like novels seem to be. There are massive publicity campaigns as the industry doesn’t have the same money pumping through it and it can’t compete next to the big prose fiction guns.

    Perhaps more cheap pamphlets need to be produced as ‘tasters’, or maybe some form of literacy-orientated sponsorship campaign needs to help save the industry. It’s never been lucrative, but if people are going to buy it on a large scale it needs to be interpreted, explained, illuminated by those who would have it bought. After all, I always prefer lucid writing to the deliberately obscure or esoteric, and that alone encourages me to buy good poetry. That and nice pictures.
    Good luck.

  17. I do buy poetry collections but prefer to take out subscriptions to good poetry magazines, and to buy anthologies from reputable publishers. That way, you get to read poems pre-selected by editors who choose them from thousands of hopefuls, you can be sure the quality is good throughout, and you discover new voices. I never buy a poetry collection based on reviews, but on word of mouth. Except, of course, for the usual suspects – the ones you simply have to read if you are to hold your own in any respectable poetry conversation!

  18. Katrina makes a wonderful recommendation: buy a book from the poet whose reading you attend! Get an autograph and personal inscription. Yes, it may cost five-ten quid more on top of an admission price, but many in the audience will prefer to buy drinks instead. Support your local poet! And if you come to Torriano on a Sunday night, buy any of the wonderful pamphlets put out by Hearing Eye (full disclosure: one of mine is there), most just three pounds each. Support your local small press! Support your indie bookshop!

  19. Poet-friends of mine recommend other writers I should check out, I google ’em, read pieces online, if I am take with what I find, I go on to Amazon/Waterstones/Borders etc and buy… other times, I buy the books of poets I see read / perform, (this is quite interesting in that, when I begin to read their books, I do so with the voice of the poet in mind imagining them reading it to me, some would argue that poetry should not be read like this; there are those who dislike the performance of poems for this exact reason, but for me, it’s all about the voice and the skill with which it is captured on the page… on this fine line is where poetry Truly lives for me)

  20. Over the years I’ve bought a lot following readings, especially StAnza. I also check out magazine reviews, but I’m not sure I’ve ever bought something as a result of reading a review (so why do we publishers submit them? – some day I might figure). On the rare occasion a poetry collection is listed in a newspaper I might order it. (Just delivered today is Heaney’s ‘translation’ of Robert Henryson, which I saw mentioned last week). Also on my ‘to-read’ shelf 3 Salt titles (sought and bought online) and two classic translations by Rexroth which I’m re-reading – the original copies having been given away. And friends tell me about books they’ve discovered.

  21. For me, nothing beats the serendipitous discovery in a bookstore. Sometimes, of course, I pick a book off the shelf because I remember reading a review or hearing a friend recommend it, and sometimes of course I’ll be familiar with the author from othr books, but most often it’s unfamiliar and I make the decision based upon my impression of the first three poems I read, opening the book at random, and on how much money is in my pocket. I buy 30-50 books a year in this manner, almost all at a well-stocked used bookstore adjacent to the Pennsylvania State University’s main campus, which has, I’m told, the largest English department in the world. Hence there’s quite a high turnover on the shelves.

  22. I buy on the recommendation of other poet friends, also if I have enjoyed a reading given by the poet. I will also, perhaps wrongly, be influenced by who has written blurbs for the poet, if it is a poet or writer who’s opinion I trust and value that does make a difference. I do find such blurbs carry some weight if the blurber is not ubiquitous. This is not to be critical of those more established poets who are generous and kind of heart and spend time doing such things to encourage new poets but now and then if you see a blurb by someone who doesn’t usually blurb then I do tend to think the collection might be worth a serious look. In the end I also like to take a punt on some poet I wouldn’t perhaps normally come across, these can be found by random thumbing through books in the bookshop or reading one ot two of the poets poems in anthologies or magazines.

  23. This has been a fascinating discussion, not least because I know many of the contributors are readers and writers. As a reader, I buy books because of reviews/PBS/poems glimpsed on the Web/shamefully infrequent trips to bookshops. Reviews only persuade me to buy if the reviewer quotes enough for me to hear the poem.

    As a writer, I am struck by the number of contributors who say that they buy books at readings, which I’ve rarely been able to attend, or give, until recently. Must try harder.

    Perhaps we need a companion series on what stops us all buying poetry? In my case, it is the avalanches of deserving unread books from my so-called desk!

  24. Readings definitely for me are a big source of what to buy. I don’t always necessarily buy at the reading (although I do quite a lot) but if I’ve been along and liked the poetry, I’ll be more inclined to go on the net and check it out later.

    Amazon recommends is a brilliant feature – the ‘people who bought this also bought’, though I will generally again try to find some of the poetry on the net to see if it’s any good before making the buy.

    After readings – probably word of mouth (I guess the above could almost be construed as an example of this?) is the next biggest reason I buy poetry collections. I’ve bought a couple of books recently because friends have said ‘oh you just have to read so-and-so’. If I trust their judgment I’ll go out and buy the book.

  25. I buy books I want to re-read. This is due to a shortage of cash (being a PhD stduent and previously self-employed)! So my reading has mainly been thru public library and inter-library loan. I follow up recommendations by checking the library. I don’t buy from curiosity, tho’ I can see the appeal.
    I do buy at readings. I organised them for four years so heard a lot of poets and did learn to discriminate.
    I have been known to buy cos I’ve read contradictory reviews in mags! Or more than one good review. Otherwise I tend to think that the reviewer might have different taste to me and buying might be a mistake. Whole poems make the difference, not wee extracts in reviews.
    Last books bought Collected Poems Elizabeth Bishop (already read from library loans), and The Half-healed, Michael Symmons Roberts (not read, but already like the poet’s work).

  26. Yes, I buy new books by poets I follow, or in some cases publishers I follow (Action Books is the main one). I’m extremely stingy and check every charity shop, sale tray, remaindered store, etc for miles around, buying any and every poetry book that finds its way to those cheap outlets (there aren’t very many). Then I’m not bothered about whether they appeal to me, for a couple of quid I’ll buy anything. I bought Ian Duhig’s “The Speed of Dark” like that; it was offloaded to The Works only a year after publication. And though this scavenging habit inevitably tends to favour mainstream poetry it has also brought me in touch with some real surprises, enabled me to jump out of the straitjacket of my own tastes. I’m also fond of downloading and reading free eBooks – this has, rather often, persuaded me to subsequently spend real money on an author. Also, I indiscriminately buy poetry books in languages I’m trying to learn, but of course I only ever see those in the countries concerned.

    I can’t remember often buying a book directly as a result of reading something in a review. I have it done once or twice, but it’s been a mixed experience – I find you can’t trust reviewers. But I think reading reviews has a more subtle, nonetheless vitally important, formative effect; somehow, it makes us put down markers, we develop a personal map of what’s out there. I make a mental note that some poet’s name is associated with something that interests me – a line, an image, an idea, something intriguing in their bio or even some hobby I happen to share. Later, when I see that name again, I’ll pay a little more attention, even if I can’t really remember why. Much, much later, if nothing occurs in the mean time to put me off, I might fall into fan-worship and buy every book they ever wrote…but many steps lie between.

  27. If we are allowed to add a comment twice: I forgot to mention that I also subscribe to Carcanet’s emailing where they quote a full poem by the poet they are promoting and I have bought several of their books this way. I occasionally remember to look at other publishers’ web pages but having a monthly email sent is a much better sales technique. I would never buy a book online unless the webpage had put at least one whole poem from it online as a sample.

    I agree with many above who said they never buy a book after reading a review. Those occasional lines quoted in reviews, don’t really give an idea of the poet. I suppose it would be like only ever reading reviews of a new CD without ever hearing the music. I might get a poet’s work from Scottish Poetry LIbrary after reading a review, but then again, only buy, if I really liked the poems.

    And no, I rarely buy a poetry book from a bookshop. The range is so limited and despite an attempt by Waterstones to include more than anthologies recently , their warehouse and distributor leaves black marks down the sides of the pages (the cut side when shut)and if I am choosing a favourite poet, or particurarly if buying one as a present I don’t want a copy spoilt by dirty marks. Waterstones please note.

  28. I buy regularly and from Borders. Well done to them for having a very healthy selection of books. Probably about 10 times more than what Waterstones stock. I’m afraid I don’t rely on anyone to tell me what to buy – none of my friends read poetry (unfortunately) and I rarely read reviews. I have bought on the strength of reviews before and regretted it. I’ve also bought after reading a poem in a magazine. Most of the time I do it the old fashioned way and browse. Its the best way I think. I’ve bought Jacob Polley, Robin Robertson, Owen Sheers, Robyn Bolam, Jane Draycott and John Ashberry this way. Oh and I would buy virtually anything by Bloodaxe.

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