All publishing poets know what chapbooks are. So, I’m not going to provide a history of the chapbook. The internet is full of good essays documenting that history. In fact, one brief essay can be found here on TheThe Poetry Blog by Sam Riedel. Here’s another link to one by the British historian, Ruth Richardson. What I want to draw attention to is the importance of the poetry chapbook and the folly of considering it as less significant than a full-length collection.
A chapbook, which is basically any book with a page count under 48, will not be considered for any major prize. No matter how good, it cannot win a Pulitzer or National Book Award or National Book Critics Circle Award. In fact, there is, to my knowledge, only one national prize in the country dedicated to already published poetry chapbooks: The Jean Pedrick Award, sponsored by the New England Poetry Club. I emphasize “already published,” because there are plenty of prizes for chapbooks in which the prize is publication. But the incredible failure to acknowledge the significance of chapbooks after publication mirrors the failure throughout the poetry world to respect chapbooks as artistic achievements in their own right, the failure to judge them solely on their quality. Of course, there are devotees of the chapbook, but there are devotees and collectors of everything from backscratchers and umbrella covers to sugar packets. The error for poetry chapbooks is in the disregard for them, not only by the general reading public who may not even know of their existence, but by poets themselves, especially those aspiring to carve out a place in the literary world. The feeling is that if you want to be taken seriously as a poet you have to publish more than a chapbook, you must publish a full-length collection. Even those who value them value them only as “calling cards” or stepping stones toward publishing larger works. This is clearly an error if one reflects briefly on the history of great poetry.
Philip Larkin published five collections of poetry in his lifetime. Of those five only one of them would be a full-length collection by today’s standards and that one, his first one, The North Ship, only just makes it, coming in at 48 pages. The four that followed—XX Poems, The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings, and High Windows—would all be considered chapbooks by today’s definition. XX Poems was privately printed and so it’s difficult to find information about its page count. However, given that Larkin generally wrote short poems and even if each poem in this collection took up 2 pages, which is highly unlikely, it would be 40 pages of poetry, and thus, still a chapbook. The page count for each of the following four books respectively goes: 45, 46, and 42. So, only The North Ship qualifies as a full-length collection. Imagine the loss to the world of poetry if such chapbooks had been ignored as insignificant merely because of their length? Or consider the ridiculousness of relegating them to being mere stepping stones to his Collected Poems, published after his death. These short collections contain some of the most startling and beautiful poetry written in the last century.
William Blake’s famous collections: The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience were both chapbooks. The first book comprised only 19 poems published in 1790. Four years later he published The Songs of Experience, which was only 26 poems. And to be clear, none of these poems were long. Most were a page or less. Even though these chapbooks were very small, not only in page number but in actual size, they were works of art unlike anything anyone else had produced, created using Blake’s own method of printing from copper plates etched by acids.
More recently, the poet Tomas Transtromer, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize, demonstrated the power of an oeuvre that accumulates in small increments, growing slowly like a glacier over years. Each individual addition to his total output never amounts to what is defined as a full-length collection. Only by combining old material with new material does he make more than a chapbook. His first book, 17 Poems, was, of course, 17 poems and they weren’t long enough to cover 48 pages. Not even close. The next set of new poems, Secrets on the Way, added fourteen more poems to his work. The collection after that, The Half-Finished Heaven, added twenty-one more poems. In this way, he kept adding to his oeuvre. But any given addition never would have broken that 48-page barrier.
Many other poets have published works that are chapbooks. The original publications of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations, and Ginsberg’s Howl were both chapbooks. Of Louise Bogan’s four major collections, two of them—The Body of This Death, and The Sleeping Fury, were chapbooks. Edgar Bowers’ second collection, To the Astronomers, was 36 pages. And the following collection Living Together, although 84 pages, was a new & selected and therefore, full of material from his first two collections. I’m fortunate to own a copy of this book and can tell you that the new poems in the collection only compose a total of 10 more pages. This could also be pointed out of many other poets. So what is our obsession with making collections long when so many important poets published short works of great significance? Why consider these mere works on the way to—not more important work, but just larger collections of work?
I’m not an expert. But my guess is it’s market driven. Somewhere along the line, it is all ultimately determined by graphs of market value and profit margins for the larger houses that publish poetry. Unfortunately, we poets have largely bought into this mentality. Our entire culture believes, as if it were divine writ, that bigger-is-better, that perpetual growth defines success. But it is error in many ways and folly for poets to follow along with this thinking. A poet should write and construct the best book they can, and if that collection is under 48 pages, then that is how long it’s supposed to be. To ignore a collection because it’s only 20 or 30 pages long rather than 60 or 80 pages is simply the error of a mind that thinks bigger is better. Or it at least is not questioning that implicit assumption. I wager that most poets don’t think of themselves as adhering to this mentality and yet, here we are, all racing toward that 48-page mark as though it were what defines a collection of poetry. Certainly nothing in poetry itself determines that. It is an ulterior motive shaping the collection to reach that mark. Consciously or unconsciously it is not a poetic motive directing the poet’s choices here and it’s time to put that to an end.
We should encourage what bookstores remain in the world to display chapbooks as clearly as others. We should encourage institutions to establish prizes that recognize the best chapbook published in the previous year, prizes that are honored and respected as equally as any other prize for full-length collections. Chapbooks should be reviewed as regularly as other collections and in both large and small journals. They should be reviewed with the same attention as other collections. I would be willing to wager a large sum that if these things were done, we would begin to recognize a large number of very accomplished poets who haven’t had a full-length collection published but are just as deserving of recognition as any who have.