Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

Selling Out in Poetry

There’s a Twitter conversation happening on the #poettues hashtag over the question of selling out when it comes to your poetry. The question that started it all was from Robert Lee Brewer: Do you alter your poetry to try for publication? My answer was that if a poem gets rejected a number of times, I’ll look at it again and consider revising it. What I didn’t mention, in part because the conversation went in another direction, is that I might just abandon the piece, or try to find another audience for it.

But the conversation went into the realm of selling out, i.e. whether one should change a poem in hopes of chasing popularity. Many of the first responses were based around the idea (an accurate one) that there’s not much money in poetry so why bother selling out? I made that argument in a conversation with Elizabeth Tallent at Stanford–that if there were a market for our work, you’d find poets lined up around the block ready to sell out. There’s nothing inherently pure about poets or poetry.

One could argue that if you’re working in academia, then there’s an impetus to publish and taking some of the edge off in order to make a poem more acceptable to a major journal would constitute selling out, and in fact, that argument has been made at length in the past (at times by safely-tenured people inside academia–take that as you will).

I have problems with the term “selling out.” I’ve heard it used most often in reference to bands or musicians, and it’s generally used by people who were fans of bands when they were obscure, when they were playing dive bars and selling home-burned CDs during the breaks. When the band gets big–because a band can’t be accused of selling out without commercial success–these early fans often accuse the band of having mellowed their sound to appeal to a larger audience. What they don’t acknowledge is the possibility that 1) perhaps this was just the way the band was evolving, or more likely, 2) the band changed the tastes of the audience and drew them in.

Another problem I have with the notion of selling out is that it assumes that anything popular can’t have artistic value, and vice-versa. I’ve known a number of music and poetry snobs who claim precisely this, and it strikes me as the worst kind of intellectual laziness, because it requires absolutely no effort. The nerdcore rapper MC Frontalot really nailed this attitude in the song “Indier Than Thou,” provided here for your enjoyment.

I don’t think many poets sell out in the way the term is generally used–I don’t think most poets, especially the more commercially successful ones (and that’s using the term loosely), are consciously looking for ways to shave off the rough edges and make their poems more palatable to an audience. I like to give poets the benefit of the doubt and assume that they’re making the best art they can, and perhaps that’s naive of me, but what it means for me is that I can’t simply dismiss their work if I don’t like it. I have to delve into it and figure out why I don’t find the work challenging. That’s a lot tougher than simply labeling someone a sell-out.


May 25, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Agree. I often think with the music side of the equation, there is often a chicken-egg dichotomy. Did the band water down their music as they have become commercially successful? Or did the watered down music that the band evolved to generate their broader commercial success?

    I think that “selling out” is merely a phrase for fans to indicate that they have lost favor with current content production or a way for the fans to attempt to prove their intellectual superiority to others, and it it has little actual critical value of the content itself. It is a thinly disguised ad hominem attack, trying to devalue the actual produced content/music/art/poetry by attacking the motivations for its production rather than criticizing the work itself.

    It also smells of jealousy, too. šŸ™‚

    Nice post.

    Comment by Cameron Mathews | May 25, 2010 | Reply

  2. I think there may be an issue of “selling out” for status – not only in regard to the writing itself, but in regard to the mutual stroking that happens in poetry communities often. We have other needs and drive besides money šŸ™‚

    Comment by renkath | May 25, 2010 | Reply

  3. Although he’s been accused of selling out in many ways, it wasn’t until I saw Bob Dylan (“oh to be in the land of Coca-Cola”) singing “Forever Young,” a song written for his son as a young child, that I really took such a critique to heart.

    I suppose if Gary Snyder ran ads for BP, or Wendell Berry did the same for some new fangled cell phone device, I would consider that a poet selling out.

    Must be the season of the witch, and so on.

    The real problem is that it is hard to write great poetry; few can do it, fewer consistently, fewer even without their powers diminishing.

    Yes, perhaps fame killed Alan Ginsburg’s ability to write the kind of earth shaking work he was capable of up to, say, “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” and the big Beats suffered a bit more than others in the states as a result of their popular culture status, but if it’s not one thing, it’s another. Lack of recognition has been far more destructive to most.

    Rather, it goes like this: poets are oppressed workers, like starved dogs at a table where scraps are irregularly tossed to the ground, they behave with one another poorly, but anyone who can stick to writing poetry with some modicum of quality over the decades is a courageous, persistent individual.

    Comment by CitizenE | May 25, 2010 | Reply

  4. It isn’t selling out to desire for people to read your poetry.

    Everyone that writes poems wants for people to read them.

    To pretend anything else is self-deception, and to be angry with a poet for tweaking their poetry so that more people will enjoy it is really to be angry at one’s self for not doing so.

    Comment by averyoslo | May 25, 2010 | Reply

  5. I do think some poets, once they’ve been established, tend to relax a bit. So I do find myself liking their earlier work better. It’s not exactly the same as say Metallica selling out after the Black album, but people do find it curious. If anything, it could very well be age.

    Take poets like Neruda, Huidobro, and Vallejo. They start out in a rather surreal mode of poetics but become more plain-spoken and human in their later careers. These weren’t bad changes; they worked, and both are viable endeavors. The simplest of forms and most universal of themes take a true mastery that’s only hard won by experience.

    At the same time, I do think some poets can rest on their laurels, crystalize into their particular personae, and diminish in their talents. Sharon Olds was at her strongest in her first book, and it’s all diminishing returns after.

    It’s best to take these matters on a case by case basis than to generalize. By the same token, there are probably some Emily Dickinsons and Fernando Pessoas out there off of the publishing grid that aren’t marketable now, but are awaiting discovery.

    Comment by Raymond | May 25, 2010 | Reply

  6. Excellent article.

    I think that the poets who are seen by some as ‘selling out’ are possibly foing the very valuable job of bringing more readers to poetry. Poetry isn’t music, it doesn’t have a particularly large audience and we need as many new readers as we can find!

    Juliet Wilson

    Comment by julietwilson | May 26, 2010 | Reply

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