Yardstick: The Value of a Poet?

IMG_20140916_105053_502I was in Nashville a few weeks ago and walked into Bookman Bookwoman, one of the city’s many used bookstores. A display case marked “Autographed” at the top hovered beside the register. It held five shelves of author marked books. I asked where poetry was and went to the back of the store.

While combing over the scant contemporary selection I found Selected Poems by Mark Strand. I opened the book, and it said, “Signed by Strand $13.95.” The book originally retailed for $13.00 when it was re-printed by Knopf in 1992. A $95 cent markup from the cover price means the person who sold it to the bookstore lost money, assuming they were the original purchaser of the book.

What’s most interesting is that the book was originally printed in 1980 by Atheneum. Strand was named poet laureate in 1990, which boosted his visibility, but his work was already in regular circulation since the 1960s.

Playing devil’s advocate, I took the book, walked up to the counter and said, “I’ll give you $12.00 for this.” The bookseller opened it, saw the price, the inscription and said “okay.” Of course the used bookseller is a business, and poetry itself transcends that; however, the book itself doesn’t, yet Strand wasn’t next to King. The worth of the poem is not in the price of its paper, but what it gives to the reader. And at this kind of a price, it’s obviously a gift.