But let's talk, once again, not about who reads poets but who publishes them. Between 1952 and 1982, Nissim Ezekiel brought out seven books of poems. How many people know that he paid for five of them to be published? Agha Shahid Ali paid for his first two books to be published. So did Suniti Namjoshi and Meena Alexander. Gopal Honnalgere was not alone in having to pay for practically all his nine books.
My point in mentioning a few names from a long list — it includes me — is not to single them out as pathetic examples of what the public calls "vanity publishing", but to show that such a form of publishing has been vital to the survival and growth of many of our best-known poets.
After all, the marketing possibilities of Indian fiction in English changed after Midnight's Children, but not those, perceptibly, of poetry. The publishing scene here would be inconceivable and greatly impoverished if poets didn't have to publish themselves. So would the history of Indian poetry in post-Independence India.
It's quite likely, for instance, that Arun Kolatkar's Jejuri, now a New York Review of Books classic, would have remained an uncollected poem-sequence, like The Boatride, available only in anthologies, had not a group of poets formed Clearing House in the mid-seventies.
If my claim sounds bizarre, consider this: Those who gain from this state of affairs, apart from poets, are those who believe that poetry doesn't sell for our big publishers. The anthologies they publish are filled with work that first saw the light of day in books they rejected as bad investments, but which, when used selectively in anthologies, brought them steady profits. Isn't it time publishers changed their line from 'Poetry doesn't sell' to 'Poetry doesn't sell but somehow the poetry we publish in our anthologies sells very well indeed?'