How do you balance the most unprofitable of arts with making a living?
How lucky we are
That you can’t sell
A poem, that it has
No value. Might
Give it away.
That poem you love,
That saved your life,
Wasn’t it given to you?
That poem is from Greg Orr’s Concerning the Book That is the Body of the Beloved. Simple, moving, Ii turns the inherent unsalability of poetry into a good and joyous thing. A poem written with convincing and full emotion, like this one, is indeed a gift beyond price.
That being said, us poet-types still gotta pay the bills.
A lot of famous poets had day jobs. The best-known example is probably Wallace Stevens, who worked in an insurance company his whole life. Old Wally wouldn’t even leave his VP position at Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co. when he got offered a teaching job at Harvard.
Then there’s Dr. Williams (William Carlos, that is). Talk about knowing what men die of miserably every day—for lack of what is found in poems, but also cancer. Williams worked as a doctor for over four decades in Rutherford, New Jersey, carving out his place in American literature all the while. That’s probably why he wrote such short poems. (Incidentally, you never know who you’re going to meet in med school—for Williams, it was Ezra Pound.)
Even today, few poets (at least in our country) actually make their living from writing alone. Most are also teachers and professors, which is a pretty sweet gig— and just about the only one available— if you want to be immersed in poetry and writing.
In contemporary context, poet Amy Woolard (a graduate from my alma mater!) found her career landing pad in child-welfare law. She told Bull City Press in a profile republished by The Atlantic last year that she found her calling after years of sundry rent-making pursuits, including writing and editing for a dot.com, doing financial journalism, freelancing, teaching, managing restaurants, and bartending, plus an “overindulgence in grad school” (at my alma mater, no less!).
One of the exceptions to the day-job rule is Jane Hirshfield, who will tell anyone who asks, and those who don’t, that she doesn’t have an MFA, doesn’t teach, and in fact makes her full-time living AS A POET. Hirshfield gave a reading at UVA one year that rankled some of my classmates/professors for the self-promotion she wove into her reading. As in, “When I was commissioned to write this poem for …” or, “When I was the first poet to read at Carnegie Hall…” A poem is not a pitch; to add in these little selling points is distracting, and takes some of the integrity out of the art. On the other hand, I respect this writer for the career she’s made. And to be fair, she’s not strictly a poet, but also a freelance editor and translator. She’s no different than other freelance writers and teachers who also write poetry— she’s just been more successful at it than most! But that’s a subject for another blog post.
Woolard says that has never felt the need to label herself a “poet”: “It’s a title I’ve never really taken on or have been comfortable with, but it has been used on me in different contexts. For example, at Iowa, we were often called poets but only really to distinguish us from the fiction writers, viz.—‘The poets are going to the Foxhead for drinks, and I think some of the fiction writers will be there, too.’”
We used this distinction in college too (still do, actually). There is something unpleasantly self-conscious about labeling yourself a poet. When you graduate from law school you’re a “juris doctor,” and when you graduate from med school you’re a “doctor,” but when you graduate from poet school, you don’t get a title to let people now how impressive you are. No one goes around asking, “Is there a Poet in the house?” “I need to make an appointment with my Poet.” “Let me go consult with my Poet.” And “MFA” just sounds like a curse word.
I see nothing wrong with owning your self-decreed title of Poet. Even so, to me it’s inconceivable to live a life of full-time poetessing. I identify myself as a writer, but that encompasses a very wide, decidedly unpoetic range. I may go get my MFA some day, but in the meantime, there are just so many other things I want to do. Traveling, working, meeting people, and living different places feel like necessary, formative experiences.
Calling yourself a poet is pretentious to some, admirable to others, but either way, it’s odd and a tad rebellious. The act of making a poem—of laboring over this little, unproductive bundle of words when there is certainly something else to do that will deliver more tangible gains—is still a willful pursuit, a small transgression.