As I walked under the antiquarian banner I thought about the fate of poetry books, how a few end up in libraries, more in private collections, and how some end their bookish lives thrown in a dumpster, or sold by the pound at estate sales.
Sometimes the books are very lucky, or the poet is well-known, and they’re acquired by a dealer and peddled like stamps or coins at these antiquarian gatherings.
I thought about all this as I strolled for a few minutes among the work of lucky writers who live on in Mylar covers in orderly calculated rows.
In the first booth I asked a serious dealer about poetry and he pointed to a glass case and a slim volume, A Green Bough, a poetry book by William Faulkner published in 1933. The book was worth $1500. “It’s not one of his more desirable titles,” the dealer said as he opened the case and flipped to an interior poem. “Everybody wants the novels.”
Across from “Faulkner Under Glass” I entered a booth that was much more inviting. I strolled in and struck up a conversation: “What’s the most expensive poetry book you’ve ever sold?” I asked the proprietor, someone I’d bought books from at past festivals.
He thought for a moment. “An early collection by Australian Les Murray. Oxford bought it. You know, the real Oxford.”
His wife heard us talking, added, “Don’t forget we’ve got a $950 Derek Walcott over here— Last time I checked he was still a poet.”
They showed me the Walcott, then an impressive running foot of Billy Collins collections on a high shelf. The dealer pulled one down and opened it. “He’s very popular and sells well.” The books were $50 to $100.
“And by the way, you might write down we’re not antiquarians. We sell collectibles mostly—like these Billy Collins books. The thing for me is hearing the poet read. Then I collect their books and get them signed. That signature. That makes them collectible.”
“But what about that sign?” I said, pointing up. “It says antiquarian.”
He laughs. “Oh, we sometimes get some old ones. I even sold a Robert Burns today. It had a leatherette binding. Got $60 for it. It’s not that I don’t like antiquarian poetry. I do. I’m a sucker for a pretty old poetry book, a sucker for a leather binding.”
I wander on down the alley.
I think for a flashing moment of all those tables full of poetry books every year at AWP, of all those slender volumes someday soon abandoned and forgotten like all the volumes of the past.
My books will most likely be there, joined by most of the poetry ever published. Most poetry books don’t make it to a collector’s shelf. What was it Pound said, write like you can produce one poem that might last 100 years? The antiquarian alley sure makes that real.
But just when I’d lost hope for poetry, on one shelf further down I found a complete set of E.A. Robinson. His books have made it 100 years, and he has at least one poem people still read.
But to balance that, on another shelf I found the collected poems of Archibald Rutledge, a former poet laureate of South Carolina, now almost entirely forgotten except by collectors. Few read him today, though his books often sell for hundreds of dollars.
Then at the end of alley I found some slender hardback volumes by James Dickey. Dickey’s been dead now over a decade. He’s one of my favorite poets and I have all his books in ragged, well-read paperback editions.
The clerk came over and pointed out that these books are very collectible, in good shape. He’s a local favorite since he taught for over 30 years at the University of South Carolina.
That last booth had as many James Dickey books as the earlier booth had Billy Collins collections. It's interesting to consider how in 1970 Dickey was as popular as Collins is today. Time has a way of shelving us all.
I passed on the Faulkner, Robinson, Rutledge, Collins, and Dickey. All I bought today was a little pamphlet of Appalachian folk tales for $5. I thought about the coyote tales out west and wondered if anyone had ever done the same thing with mountain tales. Maybe I’d give it a try. Ironically, I found the treasure tucked between two old poetry books. It was a real find, called “I Bought Me a Dog Once and Other Tales.”