Gulag Archipelago is in every bookshop window across the country. How smugly we congratulate ourselves on our putative freedom of expression without fear of a crushing totalitarian bureaucracy. But search these same bookshops for the works of contemporary American poets. If you can find any such at all they will be buried in the darkest corner of the shelves or banished to the balcony under "Belles Lettres."
Among, the Soviets the opposite situation prevails. Andrei Voznezhensky, a contemporary Russian poet, recently told an American audience that his latest collection, issued by the State publishing trust, numbered 300,000 in the first edition and the bookshop counters were swept bare in a single week. Nor is he an apologist for the regime. Just a poet, pure and simple.
Contrast the predicament of American poets today. The authorities, in our case the big commercial publishers, usually, units in a great conglomerate combining the production of books, peanut butter, electronic components, sanitary napkins and toilet tissue, just suppress us in a manner subtler than the way Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was suppressed in the Workers' Fatherland. They publish a very select few of us to establish tax credits and stay respectable, but in editions so small as to be invisible to the naked eye. One editor-in-chief for a major publishing house told me his firm's first editions of poetry numbered 500 copies. When my editor at Macmillan announced to me that they were issuing my Collected Poems: 1924-1974 in a first edition of 5,000 or 6,000 clothbound copies because they considered it to be such an important work, I was surprised and gratified. Of course the edition when it appeared did not actually number 5,000 or 6,000 copies. Some potentate in the upper reaches of the shadowy outfit had cut the number to 3,500. Still this was, for poetry in America today, an astronomically large figure. Before the year was out, another substantial edition was issued by Macmillan in response to the 130 reviews received, still in cloth however. A second publisher wished to issue the book in paper but was rebuffed by the dog in the Macmillan manger. All this is done on the specious ground that "poetry won't sell." Of course it won't. They make absolutely sure of that by issuing a token number of books in minuscular editions, which they neither advertise subsequently nor promote in any customary way. How could poetry published and marketed in this surreptitious manner be sold to a mass public conditioned to buy through saturation advertising the way Pavlov's dog salivated only when he heard the little bell ring?
When Macmillan produced my Collected Poems: 1924-1974, I was very pleased with the big book. The design and printing were impeccable, the format large and bold, the dust-jacket spectacular, just the thing to decorate your coffee table. It was released, under most auspicious circumstances in my old home town, Birmingham, Alabama, where I had first become a poet a half century earlier by writing about the inhuman conditions prevailing in the steel mills. I first worked there during the nonunion, 12-hour shift days of the early '20s. For many years I had been regarded with distaste by the Birmingham power structure because of my defense of human rights in both writing and action. Nor could it be overlooked that, although I was practically a native, my great-great-aunt Harriet Beecher Stowe had been the author of a subversive work called Uncle Tom's Cabin. These things are hard to live down. However, a new dispensation reigned. Bull Connor, his fire hoses and raging police dogs were an uncomfortable memory. A new image of the city was being projected. May 1, the release date of my book as well as the international working class holiday, was declared to be "John Beecher Day" in Birmingham.
At the "John Beecher Day" ceremonies in Magnolia Park I received the key to the city and a mayoral proclamation declaring that I had "won national recognition as the poet and spokesman for the weak and oppressed," and had "stood tall for our American ideals." I was furthermore dubbed an "Honorary Citizen." Hundreds of helium-filled balloons imprinted "I am a Beecher Creature" floated over the skyscrapers of the Alabama metropolis.
Far from making capital of the Birmingham honors and widespread attendant publicity, my publishers ignored the whole affair. Not a line of advertising of the book appeared in the Alabama newspapers -- which were saluting its publication with stories and reviews -- and not a line anywhere else for that matter. I then requested from Macmillan's publicity department a list of the publications to which my book had been sent for review. Several weeks passed before it came. I could scarcely believe my eyes.
Publisher's Weekly, the Bible of the book trade, had not received a copy either for listing or review, which is de rigueur. Time magazine and The Nation, both of which were quoted on the book jacket from their reviews of previous works of mine, were astonishingly absent from the list. So was Saturday Review-World, although SR had taken favorable notice of my work in the past. The New Republic, to which I had been a contributor for more than a generation, got no review copy. Neither did the Durham Morning Herald, published in the city where I then lived as a visiting scholar at Duke University, nor the nearby Chapel Hill Newspaper, famous for its "Literary Lantern" column, nor yet the statewide Raleigh News and Observer.
I discovered that the list furnished me was in fact bogus. Many listed editors responded to my long-distance calls and letters to say that they had never received the book. I spent weeks in investigating and rectifying matters by sending books from my own stock to editors who had not received them. Eventually my wife and I decided to go to New York and try to clear up the botch. We stayed for 10 full working days.
In all that time I was unable to get an appointment with my editor, who had previously been readily approachable and unfailingly courteous. I did learn from one of his assistants that in the very first month of publication, before any reviews began to hit appreciably, two-thirds of the edition had been disposed of. Three pitiful advertisements ultimately appeared, the first a three-inch squib in Poetry magazine, circulation 6,000, rehashing old quotes despite the marvelous reviews which had been coming in, the second a minute box in the New York Times Book Review, the third a modest plug in the American Poetry Review. Meanwhile at their sales conference, Macmillan's district salesmen were told, "This book is for libraries. Don't bother with it." (Testimony from one who was present.) Reviews poured in from every part of the country, many of which placed the book in the first rank. No response from the publisher who, to use a current phrase, was "stonewalling" it. The word for this is suppression.
From Phantasm, Vol. 4, No. 5. Copyright © 1979 by Heidelberg Graphics, Chico, California.