Where have all the best-selling poets gone?
July 25, 2008 1:49 PM   Subscribe

Was Rod McKuen that last person to sell millions of poetry books? Professional, prize-winning poets these days are university instructors. They have day jobs. McKuen was selling out concert halls and partying with Sinatra. Was his monstrous success (65 million books sold!) a product of his era? Will the world ever be ready again to make a poet into a millionaire?
posted by jackypaper to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Remember singer/songwriter Jewel? She released a book of horrid poetry that sold over 2 million copies.

But I don't think there is a large market for serious poetry. Pop poetry, sure. But serious poetry isn't written for the average Joe. Unless something changes with the direction poetry is going or our culture serious poetry wont have a place on house frau's coffee tables.
posted by munchingzombie at 2:04 PM on July 25, 2008

Maybe Ginsberg is the closest?

I'd be curious--though I'm not going to do the research myself--about how many units pre-McKuen poets moved. The phrasing you use, "the last person to sell millions of poetry books", implies that there was a time when other serious contemporary poets were that commercially successful. But what were sales like for T.S. Eliot, for example? More or less than the popular-but-now-less-remembered A.E. Housman?

My suspicion is that there's never been much of a big-time market for truly great poetry. (And I'm not of the view that commercial success means that your work isn't great.)
posted by Beardman at 2:13 PM on July 25, 2008

what are the figures for heaney's beowulf? i found one reference to 75,000 in the uk. and someone said 2/3 of poetry sold in the uk is his. but i have no idea if he's as popular in the usa. anyway 75,000 is nowhere near a million.
posted by not sure this is a good idea at 2:42 PM on July 25, 2008

Mattie Stepanek sold a lot of books but I don't know that he made a ton of money-- that's pretty hard to do with any kind of book. I do like the image of him partying with Sinatra, though...
posted by Failure31 at 2:43 PM on July 25, 2008

Christian Bok's Eunoia apparently became the best selling Canadian poetry book ever as recently as '01('02?) although I've no idea what that boils down to in terms of actual numbers.

Also, if millionaire is your benchmark, then all it takes is nabbing the Nobel Prize in literature, you're doing ok. Piece of cake, amirite?
posted by juv3nal at 3:03 PM on July 25, 2008

Tupac's sold a lot of poetry books. Ditto Maya Angelou. Probably not as many as Tupac, though.
posted by box at 3:11 PM on July 25, 2008

Billy Collins makes a good living on his poetry. He's still on the faculty at Lehman, but I'm pretty sure the sales on his books are in the hundreds of thousands. One large American book distributor reports selling 85,000 alone. And he has quite a few books. I've found about 50 titles he probably is getting or has gotten some payment for. Mark Doty sells darn well too.

Before McKuen there were folks like Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Ogden Nash, Ambrose Bierce, and Hilaire Belloc. Humorous poets that were frequently bestselling authors and celebrities.
posted by Toekneesan at 3:25 PM on July 25, 2008

You might like to compare with the UK's Liverpool Poets -- they've been quite solidly popular and well-known since the 60s and have sold in the hundreds of thousands according to Wikipedia.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 9:16 PM on July 25, 2008

Sylvia Plath? I can't find sales figures, but I'd guess Ariel has sold steadily all these decades (especially in the years that her novel The Bell Jar was a bestseller), and her Collected Poems won the Pulitzer in 1982.
posted by scody at 9:31 PM on July 25, 2008

Surely Shel Silverstein has sold in the millions. Maybe not the tens of millions, but almost certainly the millions. But maybe you're not counting poets whose primary audience was children.
posted by Caduceus at 10:46 PM on July 25, 2008

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