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The Secret of Poetry That Reaches a Truly Wide Audience

02/10/2015 02:12 pm ET | Updated Apr 12, 2015

If anyone could predict which books will sell, publishing wouldn't be the dumb business it really is. Publishers have always made their livings guessing, pretending we have fingers on the pulse of what readers want and need. Most often, we're wrong, which is why only one in a hundred books sells 5,000 copies. So when you hear that a book has sold, say, 50,000, well, that's an incredible bestseller. Occasionally, but only very occasionally, a poetry volume reaches that level.

At any given time, take a look at the bestsellers in the Poetry category and you'll find a mix of lightweight, inspirational/spiritual fluff, classics that college kids are pretending to read, and then one or two truly marvelous contemporary poets who by some hermetical miracle have made their way to financial success. In this latter category I am talking only about poets Mary Oliver and Billy Collins; they can actually make a good living at it. Their sales are a few times more than those of, say, Wendell Berry. Other well-deserving, terrific living poets such as Sharon Olds, Jane Hirschfield, John Ashbery, and Louise Gluck stand in what we might call third place. Then, sales of Geoffrey Hill, whom many consider the greatest living poet in English, are miniscule outside institutional collections.

What's the secret of poetry that reaches a truly wide audience? This quote from fellow poet Alice Fulton appears frequently on Collins dust jackets and in his press coverage: "Billy Collins puts the 'fun' back in 'profundity.'" Perhaps that's a good way to put it -- but while Aimless Love hit the New York Times Bestseller list upon publication in hardcover last year, and it is a mix of fun and profundity, I think the two rarely if ever track together in the same poem.

Every line from his 2008 collection, Ballistics, included in Aimless Love, is hard-earned wisdom, rough-edged verse. I love these lines from "The First Night," one of several poems about life endings, in which the poet is reflecting on what it must be like on the evening of one's death: "...it is enough to frighten me / into paying more attention to the world's day-moon, / to sunlight bright on water / or fragmented in a grove of trees, / and to look more closely here at these small leaves, / these sentinel thorns, / whose employment it is to guard the rose."

There are fifty-one new poems in Aimless Love, and many of them contain this same ability to observe the world in digestible, enviable ways. We want both the eyes and heart of what's expressed in a great Billy Collins poem--as in these from the title poem, "Aimless Love": "This morning as I walked along the lakeshore, / I fell in love with a wren / and later in the day with a mouse / the cat had dropped under the dining room table." Concluding: "...my heart is always propped up / in a field on its tripod, / ready for the next arrow."

Yet, others in Aimless Love come across as silly, ephemeral, without much importance or depth. Perhaps they are there to cause us pause, like the Selah in the Psalms; if so, that works.

A half-generation ago, the mantle of popular poet was worn lightly by Seamus Heaney, who was never flip or foolish with his gift. When Heaney died in 2013 his books accounted for two-thirds of all poetry sales in the UK. His sales were even a higher percentage in his native Ireland, and certainly higher in total numbers sold in the U.S., where Heaney taught at Harvard for the better part of a quarter century. His funeral was broadcast live on Irish television.

In the 1950s, it was Robert Frost and Dylan Thomas, appealing not only to tens of thousands each time a new collection appeared, but filling auditoriums throughout the U.S. on their reading tours. Both men would read not only his own poems, but classics by others. Some of these readings were recorded and released on Caedmon and Columbia Records LPs, which also sold briskly. The new Dylan Thomas: A Centenary Celebration reminds us of those days, combining short, personal reflections, including an interesting one by Philip Pullman, and essays of literary criticism from experts, including a fascinating piece on Thomas and plagiarism by Welsh bookseller Jeff Towns, with poems of homage by an unexpected cadre, including Rowan Williams and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Sadly, however, this finely edited collection also reminds us of Thomas's lechery and lewd behavior, and has the potential to re-launch the ancient myth that a great poet must be a magician, a trickster, or a martyr who uses the sadness of his own life to bring meaning to our own.

Mary Oliver's sadness always seems to be useful to her. Blue Horses is what we have come to expect of this fine American poet who will turn 80 in September. One primary reason for her popularity is surely her ability to show us how to see things that we otherwise walk right past. This she shares with the best of Billy Collins, but to my taste, Oliver is the subtle master of the practice. We instinctively know that Oliver writes about things that are true, and we're drawn to her work because, even if we don't learn to slow down ourselves and see, we may use her senses if only for a few minutes. I've often heard my friend, the poet Mark Burrows, call this "poetry of allurement," and he's right.

That said, I do have one small complaint with Oliver's new book and it has nothing to do with the work itself: her publisher has made a book out of half a one. Each poem begins on a right hand page, and since most of them are not long enough to continue onto the back of that page (the verso), 29 pages are left blank in a book with a total page count of 79. Nevertheless, what's here is vital.

Oliver always writes poems, like "Angels" in Blue Horses that stop me in my tracks. Kingfishers, owls, and human love are here in this collection, and that will remind you of other Oliver, but here also are more elusive, spiritual creatures. The poet is, in fact, looking for them. "Angels" ends with: "I'll just leave you with this. / I don't care how many angels can / dance on the head of a pin. It's / enough to know that for some people / they exist, and that they dance." Later, in "Such Silence," Oliver tells us: "I sat on the bench, waiting for something. / An angel, perhaps. / Or dancers with the legs of goats. / No, I didn't see either. But only, I think, because / I didn't stay long enough."

If we can slow down will we see such things? Perhaps. This is why so many of us still read poems: we are always looking and some poets help us see. The poet doesn't so much make meaning as uncover it.

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Jon M. Sweeney is the editor-in-chief of Paraclete Poetry and author of many books including When Saint Francis Saved the Church and Inventing Hell.