What exactly is poetry? There really isn’t a concrete answer to that question. It’s kind of a personal experience for each individual. But I like this simple definition best: literature that evokes a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience or a specific emotional response through language chosen and arranged for its meaning, sound, and rhythm.
The idea behind poetry, I have always believed, is to illustrate a situation or create a feeling or offer an idea with as few words as possible while also making them pleasing when read aloud. For I’ve always believed that poetry is best appreciated when it is spoken.
There are a lot of different poem forms. The Japanese haiku is a particularly refined form that has a few basic rules that must be adhered to. It can be difficult to write haiku, but when well done, they are very beautiful.
Traditional Japanese haiku consist of three phrases that contain a kireji, or “cutting word”, 17 “syllables” in a 5, 7, 5 pattern, and a kigo, or seasonal reference. Similar poems that do not adhere to these rules are generally classified as senryū.
It can be very difficult to translate haiku written in Japanese to English and maintain proper form. But there are a few that do a pretty good job. I have always enjoyed the haikus of Basho. Here is one:
In a world of one color
The sound of wind
And here is one of my own haiku … or at least I fancy it so, or most likely it is a senryu:
Succumbing to autumn
Now comes the harvest
You can rhyme your poem or not. You can follow a specific meter or not. You can use flowery speech or very plain language. You can be profane. It’s really up to you. While poetry might seem constrained to some, there is actually a great deal of freedom in it. You do not have to be explicit or accurate. You can simply let it flow.
Among some other forms of poetry besides haiku, you will find narrative, lyric, epic, satirical, elegy, verse fable, dramatic, speculative, light, and slam. Slam poetry is interesting in that it focuses on the aesthetics of word play, intonation, and voice inflection. Slam poetry is often competitive and performed at dedicated contests. Not my cup of tea, but I guess some people enjoy doing that.
Doggerel is a particular favorite of mine. Doggerel is generally defined as poetry that is loosely styled and irregular in measure and written especially for comic effect. It is also marked by triviality or inferiority (but that is a matter of opinion). Some very famous poets have written doggerel. There are Shakespeare, Burns, Carroll, Chaucer, Frost, Kipling and Nash to name a few. And don’t forget the master of doggerel, Seuss.
Doggerel is fun and easy to write. Generally, it will rhyme. The meter can be irregular but I like it best if it is maintained. Here is one of mine:
Cats in a Pile
My mom always told me and I believe it is so
That it’s best if you have all your ducks in a row
Chickens are fine if you keep them in line
And sheep in a herd are never absurd
But cats will come rarely, if ever, together
Unless you are having some really bad weather
Then a cozy warm spot, direct in the sun
Is the bestest and greatest most wonderful fun
They can lie for a day or for only an hour
‘Till the lack of a game begins to get sour
Then it’s up this chair down that chair all through the house
In crazy pursuit of that little toy mouse
At the end of the day when my bones are most weary
It’s then when I think that they see me most clearly
They lie in my lap, their purrs they’ll commingle
It’s a joyous affair that produces a tingle
That reaches way down to my biggest big toe
And I feel so much love that I feel I must glow
You can have your cats single, in twos and in threes
You can have your cats any which way that you please
But I think it’s best, at least for a while
If you have all your very fine cats in a pile
As much fun as it is to write poetry, it’s a hard sell. If your intention is to make money from your writing, poetry might not be the way to go.
Poetry is a niche market. Always has been and probably always will be. Large booksellers will mostly only sell the classics. And trying to get something published as a relatively unknown author of poetry is devilishly difficult.
If you want to sell your book of poems, marketing will be the biggest issue. When I finished my first novel, I started searching for an agent to represent my work. I lost track of how many letters I sent out to various agents and various agencies. It was a lot. I finally gave up and went the self-publishing route.
At the time, I knew the odds of finding an agent to represent me were slim. I would have to guess that the odds of finding an agent to represent the author of a book of poetry are even slimmer.
So, I chose to use Kindle Direct Publishing and I have been very happy with it. I have three novels in publication right now. But the thing is, you still have to do the marketing yourself. And it can be a complicated mess.
But before you even think about marketing, you need to be sure that you have something worth selling.
Four Basic Conditions and One Caveat
The work must be of high quality.
The price must be reasonable.
The book must be nicely produced.
If selling online, sample poems should be provided.
And lastly, you have to work actively at self-promotion both online and off, letting people know where the book can be purchased.
The unfortunate fact (as I well know having done a really poor job on the self-promotion end of it) is that if you skip any of this, the book will likely not sell.
Another unfortunate fact is that statistics show that it’s much easier to sell your book of poetry offline (in “person”) because people will have the chance to leaf through the book and read some poems before purchasing.
So, what to do?
Check out independent book sellers, especially local ones. They are usually happy to have books by local authors.
Gift shops can be a good placement. This is especially true if your book is eye-catchingly presented or has some appealing artwork along with the poetry. You know, the sort of thing that looks good on a coffee table.
Also, try to arrange book signings. Often times if a prospective purchaser can feel a connection to the author, they will be more inclined to actually make the purchase.
At the end of the day, though, it’s really not about selling books (although it’s really nice when they do sell). I write because I just can’t seem not to. It’s a part of me. I’m guessing it’s like that for most writers.
So write your novels, make your collections of poems, publish them and feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. And don’t worry if they sell or not. Because that’s probably not why you wrote them in the first place.