OPINION || Poetry in Copenhagen and Elsewhere

‘Portrait of a poet’ by Ilya Mashkov

It seems that God has chosen a few hundred, or at the very most a couple of thousand, in each nation for the buying of poetry. The genre is published in small print runs and the shelves of poetry doesn’t take up much space at the bookstore. That’s how it is in Denmark and in most other countries – even in China with a population of 1.4 billion it is rare to see a collection of poetry among the real bestsellers.

When travelling the world and spending time in airports, you are plainly confronted with these brutal facts. There is always a bookstore in the airport, but too often the shelves hold no poetry whatsoever. At the front of the counter are mysteries and current bestsellers with flashy covers. More modestly placed you may find a section of classics, but no poetry! I think this is rather un-ambitious, poetry has aesthetic dimensions you cannot find in prose. It evokes emotions in a more direct manner and focus on themes of importance for everyone.

Recently I had to change planes at Heathrow and was in transit there a few hours. I went into the bookstore and was presented with the gloomy fact: No poetry. Astonishing! The UK is an old national culture with proud traditions in poetry. British poets have written so much exceptional and emblematic poetry. Would it not be appropriate for every bookstore in the country to carry Blake, Yeats, Pound, Auden, Elliot or Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and Seamus Heaney? In order to find a solution to the mystery I approached the friendly young clerk. “Sorry,” he said without shame, “Poetry doesn’t sell.”

You could receive the same answer in a bookstore in Copenhagen. And we are very well aware of it; the market forces drive life on our planet. However, the problem is that if poetry isn’t to be found in a bookstore it will never get the chance to prove its viability. If readers are only fed mysteries and bestsellers we will all become more stupid, our brains will wither and our souls lose their wings. There ought to be poetry on the shelves of every bookstore with a sense of professional pride and self-respect.

I actually don’t think that the current situation among booksellers gives a true picture of the esteem of poetry among readers. Poetry lives, is doing well and flourishes like never before. It follows its own channels to connect with readers. Readings gather many enthusiasts who enjoy listening to poetry and who may buy a book or two at the same time. And that makes sense because poetry originated in the market square and in the bazar, where poets have recited since antiquity.

That’s how it is: poetry is the necessary breath and oxygen of language. The purpose of poetry is to restore language and prevent us from being insane, and there is every reason for optimism and to feel good about the state of things. Maybe poetry is not displayed at the front of the bookstore and it rarely reaches the top of the bestseller lists. But instead good poetry is long-lived. As the classical Chinese poets Li Bai (701 – 762) notes in a fragment:

Perfect poems

Are the only buildings

That always stay standing. []

Translated by Per K. Brask


Niels Hav

NIELS HAV is a full time poet and short story writer with awards from The Danish Arts Council. In English he hasWe Are Here, published by Book Thug, and poetry and fiction in numerous magazines including The Literary Review, Shearsman, Exile, The Los Angeles Review and PRISM International. In his native Danish the author of six collections of poetry and three books of short fiction. His work has been translated into several languages such as Arabic, Portuguese, Dutch, Persian, Turkish, and Chinese.

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