Someone hit the big score,
They figured it out,
That we're going to do it anyway,
Even if it doesn't pay.
Gillian Welch, "Everything is Free"
It seems to go without saying that poetry should be a barely remunerated activity: book sales are tiny, magazines are staffed by volunteers and there is no admissions charge for readings. In theory this makes for a pure and democratic artform, untainted by commercial considerations and where all can participate on an equal footing. In reality it means that almost all poets are obliged to have a second career or to be independently wealthy. I am not totally sure how to change this - you can't force people to buy books - but I would have thought charging an admission to readings would be a first step. I have no problem paying to see a concert so why not do the same for an evening of poetry? Two possible objections:
1. Some very good poets are poor performers or write work that is effective on the page but not read out loud. Such poets would be discriminated against in a system where poets were rewarded for their performative power;
2. There is a lot of bad poetry out there. To be able to play in a band you need a certain level of technical expertise and hence there is a guarantee that in exchange for your ticket you will at least hear someone who knows how to play. With poetry there is no such guarantee. The idea behind punk was that you didn't need to know how to play to be a musician. With poetry this idea has become reality. There are a lot of poets out there who do not know how to write and it would be unfair to expect people to pay to hear them.
If one believes in the power of the marketplace then the second problem should sort itself out. If someone is bad then they will be unable to gather a following and hence be unable to book gigs. The first problem is more difficult but two possible solutions might be to have actors read the work of good but shy poets or to favour visual rather than oral representations for poets who work better on the page then read out loud. Nudging poetry readings closer to concerts or to gallery shows would also have the advantage of pulling in a wider, more diversified audience.