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This item is taken from PN Review 272, Volume 49 Number 6, July - August 2023.

The 24 July issue of Publishers’ Weekly includes reviews of seven poetry titles forthcoming between July and September. They come under the heading ‘Review Fiction’. PW – the leading trade journal, comparable to the British Bookseller – does these features quarterly because an appetite for poetry among booksellers in the United States is assumed to exist.

The books chosen are diverse in many ways. They are all by authors whose work has sold well or been well reviewed in the past. What is striking to see, for a British publisher, is the fact that all but one of the books featured are over 100 pages in extent and priced between $16 and $26 (£12.45 and £20.23). Ben Lerner’s The Lights is the most expensive, a 128-page ‘muted and heartfelt’ hardback collection from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The others are all paperbacks, the most expensive per page being by the best-known of the poets, Terrance Hayes. So to Speak is a $20 Penguin weighing in at 112 pages. ‘Across three various and virtuosic sections,’ PW tells its readers, ‘Hayes (American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin) examines the personal and public, from fatherhood to the murder of George Floyd, in his muscular and meditative seventh collection.’ It notes how ‘Many lines have an aphoristic intensity (“A god who claims to be on the side of good // but remains hidden is strange as the rules of grammar”), providing moments of sharp clarity within longer narratives.’ It also notes how ‘Hayes reinvents received forms, from the “Do-it-Yourself Sestina” to “A Ghazzalled Sentence After ‘My People… Hold On’” by Eddie Kendricks, and the Negro Act of 1740’. ‘The assumption is that booksellers want to know about the poems as poetry, not only what they say but how they work and what they do. To read such comments in a trade journal is bracing: text written by an informed reader rather than a marketing department. Other descriptions have a little too much blurby residue about them: ‘Wry and invigorating, this resonant collection mollifies the need for certainty.’ ‘By using the pig as both subject and object, Sax navigates queerness, filth, beauty, and capitalism, exploring at all times “the animal yearning / within the animal within the animal.”’ ‘Finding beauty in the lowest, filthiest things, these poems guide the audience’s gaze toward redemption.’

Two of the books featured come from Graywolf Press (Mary Jo Bang’s A Film in Which I Play Everyone and Sally Wen Mao’s The Kingdom of Surfaces). Others are published by Scribner, Wesleyan University Press (Selected Poems of Calvin C. Hernton, a scholarly re-introduction of the cofounder of the Umbra Poets Workshop and member of the Black Arts Movement, 1932–2001, ‘a pioneer in the field of Black studies who placed his contributions and identity as a poet above his other accomplishments’), and Trio House, whose mission is to produce no more or fewer than three new books of poems a year.

PW provides a helpful window into how the American book trade deals with poetry. An editorial interest is taken in it, the forward recommendations are informed by commercial considerations and at the same time a wide cultural respect. The list proposed is necessarily selective but none the less diverse, suggestive, indicative.

It is also following the growing opposition by writers to their work being used in AI programming. The grounds of their protest are straightforward: their creative and scholarly work is being appropriated without permission or remuneration. The Authors’ Guild, the largest professional organisation of writers, has organised an open letter (with approaching 8,000 signatories) addressed to the heads of OpenAI, Alphabet, Meta, Stability AI and IBM. They should stop using writers’ work ‘without consent or credit’ (Guardian, 23 July). Many of the usual righteous suspects have signed, making three key demands: the AI companies should ‘Obtain permission for use of our copyrighted material’; ‘Compensate writers fairly for the past and ongoing use of our works’; and ‘Compensate writers fairly for the use of our works in AI output, whether or not the outputs are infringing under current law’. What is disappointing is that the argument is based entirely on remuneration, and the cultural and political principles underlying the AI appropriations remain unquestioned. ‘The Authors Guild is taking an important step to advance the rights of all Americans whose data and words and images are being exploited, for immense profit, without their consent,’ said Jonathan Franzen.

This is not the first organised protest. Lawsuits based on copyright law have been started. The Society of Authors in the UK has backed these North American initiatives. Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the Society of Authors, pushes the issues further, but so far the Society has not acted in its own: ‘The principles of consent, credit and compensation are bedrocks of our intellectual property regime, and a critical part of every author’s ability to protect and make a living from their work,’ she declared, but inched beyond the material argument when she added, ‘The race to build the next generation of systems is driven primarily by the profit motives of large corporations. It is opaque, unfettered and unregulated, while the ethical ramifications of AI systems are complex and crying out for scrutiny.’ It is the ethical ramifications that are likely to be most pertinent in the world of poetry, and these may well go beyond ‘establishing safeguards, regulation and compensation’.

This item is taken from PN Review 272, Volume 49 Number 6, July - August 2023.

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