Brodsky and the Business of Writing


Sorry jumbo shrimp, but there is no bigger oxymoron than “the business of writing.” Even Thomas Jefferson would find this truth self-evident.

I was reminded of it while reading Shauna Osborn’s poem “panic stricken uncertainties & the business of writing” in the June issue of Poetry. The poem kicks off with a Joseph Brodsky quote, to wit:

“In the business of writing what one accumulates is not expertise but uncertainties. Which is but another name for craft. In this filed, where expertise invites doom, the notions of adolescence and maturity get mixed up, and panic is the most frequent state of mind. So I would be lying if I resorted to chronology or to anything that suggests a linear process. A school is a factory is a poem is a prison is academia is boredom, with flashes of panic.”

A great definition of the business of selling poems, I think. It is equal parts panic and confusion. Brodsky also was prescient in seeing uncertainties as another name for Craft. (I wonder if he said this before I was born.)

The string of metaphors in the last line of the quote tells us that Brodsky hasn’t a clue as to methodology. Selling poetry is like shooting in the dark. Sometimes something yelps. It’s called a willing market.

The trouble with marketing poetry is time. Poets can lose a year of their lives waiting for a single editor to say yea or nay, and years are finite. Imagine, then, what four “no’s” cost you. Four years of your finite life!

For this reason, among others, time interested Brodsky, too:

“Basically, it’s hard for me to assess myself, a hardship not only prompted by the immodesty of the enterprise, but because one is not capable of assessing himself, let alone his work. However, if I were to summarize, my main interest is the nature of time. That’s what interests me most of all. What time can do to a man.”

In the end, Brodsky understood that society and readers played a role in the business of writing, too. Somehow poetry has become ghettoized by the storm troopers of literature, fiction and nonfiction.

Readers are complicit as well, spending with abandon on the uniformed thugs of writing genres while never even considering a walk toward the poetry section in a bookstore (“What? There’s a poetry section in bookstores?”) Some final Brodsky words of wisdom:

“By writing… in the language of his society, a poet takes a large step toward it. It is society’s job to meet him halfway, that is, to open his book and read it.”

Meet a poet halfway today. Read his or her poetry book.


8 thoughts on “Brodsky and the Business of Writing

  1. carter7878

    As long as various poetry foundations promote the idea that EVERYONE should write poetry, poetry collections will be worst-sellers. When 90% of all Americans over the age of 6 are writing poetry and trying to publish it,
    no one will want to winnow through the dreck to find the diamond. And, be honest; how many times
    have you stammered and looked for the nearest exit when some earnest individual asks, “Wanna buy my self-published poetry book?”


    1. No one ever says “my self-published poetry book,” they just say, “my book.” And, truth be told, most everyone assumes that ALL of our books are “self-published,” even when it is not the case.


      1. carter7878

        Ken, you’re right. The idea that nothing and no one but the poet’s ego decided the book had to be printed is frightening. Almost as frightening are the thousands of collections published by obscure little presses whose editors often have no more poetic education or taste than the poets they print.


      2. carter7878

        But that’s the problem. It’s much too much work paddling through the tons of dreck to find a jewel.

        Why doesn’t poetry sell? Because too many are writing it instead of reading it.There are too many poems flooding the “market.” Too many little presses flourishing, then dying, too many mediocre and just competent poems being published. Too many MFA grads trying to publish, and programs like the Poetry Foundation whipping us all into a frenzy of write, write, write! You too can become a poetry super-star!


      3. How depressing. Perhaps my new goal should be to become a reader of poetry and a reader only. For fear I might be a pound of the dreck, M, F, and A-less as I am….


      4. carter7878

        I know my reaction above sounds like blatant self-interest (if more wannabe-poets substituted reading for writing, less competition for ME, ME, ME!), but I’d never recommend anyone stop writing poetry. I just want more balance between studying poetry and stroking one’s ego by writing it. If one has no choice but to write poetry, go for it! If one is writing poetry because it’s easier than becoming a rock-star guitarist, turn off the word processor and enroll in a literature class at the nearest community college.


      5. Ah, I see. And whoa! That was a close call. I thought you were calling for my resignation.

        In the insignificantly-funny department, when you typed ME, ME, ME! I read Maine! Maine! Maine! Must be the time of year. I’m but weeks away from my escape north.


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