Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Is George Szirtes the most expensive poet?

Important Notice: The following appears after correspondence with George Szirtes here and elsewhere. It represents the opinions and views of Poet-in-Residence.

P-i-R is fully aware that poets are not the ones making the money, if indeed there is any real money to be made from the publishing of contemporary poetry books. There is no suggestion whatsoever on P-i-R that George Szirtes is in any way responsible for the pricing of his books. Pricing is a matter for the publisher. Publishers carry potential classic winners and non-runners. Szirtes falls into the first category. One day he may even win the Nobel Prize. He is not without a chance. Bloodaxe also supports many unknown poets including a few no-hopers. That sales of these lesser poets works will not be large is putting it mildly. It all costs money -this is clear. P-i-R's concern in raising this debate is that poetry does not become a middle class coffee table sideshow. In other words P-i-R is saying that poetry books MUST NOT price themselves out of reach of the workers, the students, the housewives, the unemployed. Now read on.

George Szirtes' new collection, a 448 page paperback tome, titled simply 'New & Collected Poems' (Bloodaxe), is due out on 29th November 2008. Poet-in-Residence mentions this with some concern because the book weighs in pricewise at a hefty GBP15.00p - plus GBP3.75p p&p for EU residents. This total GBP18.75 (about €30.00 - or getting on for US$38.00) is in Hungary, these days an EU country, where George hails from and where he presumably has something of a following, viel Geld*! (*a lot of money)
A lot of midnight oil has gone into 'New & Collected Poems'. Szirtes is also teaching at East Anglia University and he will soon be judging the Strokestown Poetry Competition so he's a very busy man.
East Anglia is a pleasant but expensive area of Britain - the Queen has her summer residence in that neck of the sand dunes for example. It's an area for people with plenty of folding money or very flexible credit cards.
The point that Poet-in-Residence is coming to, and it has nothing really to do with George Szirtes, is the high price of poetry books these days. Poetry appears to be in danger of becoming a middle-class coffee table hobby. Firms like Bloodaxe appear to be driving the price of poetry books out of the reach of the Man on the Chain Bridge - the ordinary man in the street in Budapest, or even in Vienna where P-i-R is currently ensconced.
The half-page advert for Szirtes' 'New & Collected Poems' in the latest Bloodaxe Catalogue features the following - given as an example of the Szirtes focus on the possibility of happiness and apprehension of disaster which, if the blurb is anything to go by, appears to be the main theme of the book.


He watched her skip across the street and take
a moment to look back at him. His heart
stopped in its tracks, as thought it had fallen apart
for a moment then reassembled. It was the ache
remained, as though life had suddenly shrunk
to one thin cord that was being sounded deep
beneath the flesh, like being half-asleep
then awake, like being doped or drunk
yet clear, as if life had been this dizziness
of atoms and molecules and chance events
out of which the towering moments rose
on stilts, on points, balancing on less
than atoms and was a transforming of moments
if only because the floor vanishes, the moment goes.


On an brighter note Poet-in-Residence finds that there are poetic bargains to be found by the man on the 41 tram if he's prepared to be diligent and shop around. P-i-R's latest purchase for example: 'Collected Poems in English' by Joseph Brodsky (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 540 pages, €15.00/US$19.00.



  1. Hi Gwilym,

    Thank you for mentioning the book. I came upon you by way of Google, of course.

    I should point out that Norfolk is actually one of the cheaper parts of the country, and that when we moved there it was dirt-cheap.I don't tend to see much of the queen nowadays.

    Also that I don't think you'll find many 445 pp books under £20.00, let alone £15.00. Good luck finding them if you do. Hungarian books tend to cost much the same as western books nowadays, unfortunately.

    And what's with the viel Geld? Hungarians speak Hungarian, not German. Or are you wanting to say something else?

  2. Hello George,
    Lovely of you to pop in! The last book I bought from Bloodaxe (in 2005) R S Thomas's 'Collected Later Poems' 368pp was GBP9.95p. For your book I will have to pay 50% more for 80 pages. I realise that you have a mouth to feed and that RST is under the turf in Angelesey but even so...50% for 80 pages?
    Re 'viel Geld' I've been reading Bela Zsolt's amazing '9 Suitcases' so my head is full of Austro-Ungarn expressions. '9 Suitcases' is GBP7.99 but it's only 324pp and it's of course not a poetry book.
    Many thanks for your comments and interest, Gwilym Williams

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  5. What an extraordinary angle of looking at the worth of poetry! I've only once encountered this price-to-value ratio consideration in literature, in Steven Spielberg's "The Terminal", here paraphrased from memory:

    Amelia: I usually read history books. They're long and cheap and usually about men killing each other. 900 pages for less than $10, do you realize what a bargain it is?


    BTW, the deleted comments made me speculate about what could have been said in them that would merit such a drastic measure. Substituting the contents of a comment with the verbal equivalent of a rap across the knuckles from the administrative authority, deprives the reader from the pleasure of judging for themselves.

    But maybe I’m just overanalyzing, as, unfortunately, is my wont.

  6. Thank you, Contentious Centrist!
    What a wonderful name and what an amusingly good point to go with it.
    Spielberg's Amelia may have been ripped-off at $10 for 900 pages of men killing each other. For about the same money (GBP5.99p) she could get the Holy Bible (NIV edition) from Hodder & Stoughton; 1,380 pp and whole civilizations wiping each other off the map.

    Re your 2nd point: This blog has a 'no comment' policy in respect of deleted posts.

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  8. Comments are appreciated but should be confined to the topic of the post. In this case the pricing of poetry books.

  9. What is this calculating of price against page count? I've never heard the like.

    Good, that is serious, literary books - poetry, criticism, non-mainstream fiction - have never been cheap. Books are far cheaper in real terms than they were a hundred years ago. George's book will be 445pp and for only £15! Amazing. You'd pay that for a completely bland new hardback novel, the kind of thing you'd give to a charity shop in a couple of years.

    My book, out in July, will be 80pp and cost £8.99: that is, much more expensive per page than George Szirtes'.

    Interesting fact: the writer doesn't set the price of the book. The publisher does.

  10. "P-i-R's concern in raising this debate is that poetry does not become a middle class coffee table sideshow. In other words P-i-R is saying that poetry books MUST NOT price themselves out of reach of the workers, the students, the housewives, the unemployed."

    20 quid, for 450 pages is 4 1/2 pence per single page, i think, which isn't much.

    A night in the pub will cost more than this book and you will have it for life.


    My concern in poetry is making others aware of the untitled Amergin text which explains exactly what poetry is and how it works, and which appears in the medeviel bardic primer, used in the irish poetry schools, and of the for human poetic joys, one is to remain in good health and happiness in:

    "the abundance of goading one receives when taking up the prosperity of bardcraft", from other jealous poets..

  11. Thanks a lot for your comments Background Artist. It has since emerged that Seamus Heaney (scroll up) is the most expensive poet with 'District & Circle' at 8.99p for 76 pp (faber and faber). George Szirtes is amazing value compared to Heaney! I'm trying with my publisher to hold down the price of my forthcoming book but I'm ashamed to admit that it could get up to 5.25p or even 5.50p for appx. 54 pp. and I feel terrible about it.

  12. i wrote a poem and want to sell it how would i get it published and how much money would i make??

  13. Thank you shiftyeyes! I've written a full answer at the top of the blog under the heading What's Poetry Worth?


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