Poets and Money

Munch Melancholy.jpg

Edvard Munch: Melancholy, 1894

“If people only read poetry, which you can never stop poets producing even when you pay them nothing at all, then the law of copyright would disappear in a trice.” —Tim Parks

Wonderful! I said to myself after I read this. The world is going to hell, but we poets have something to look forward to. We never got rich in the past and won’t see a dime in the future. Despite copyright laws, most of our poems are already freely available to millions of people on the Internet and in this age of short attention spans, poetry may end up by being the only literature people will read. With no bookstores left and libraries shut down, lovers in need of additional romantic stimulus will have to reach for their iPhones and find a poem suitable for the occasion to read to each other. Poetry’s strength comes from such practical uses. Everyone has heard of poems being read at marriage ceremonies and funerals, but I suspect nobody has ever tried to inflict a chapter of a novel or a short story on that kind of gathering. No wonder writers and intellectuals by and large disdain poetry. Poets work for nothing, Tim Parks says. In other words, they turn poems out the way a sweatshop in a third-world country turns out cheap toys.

More infuriatingly, most poems are short. They give the impression it took no time to write them. Ten minutes tops. To write a six-hundred-page novel takes years. You go and work at your desk every day the way a miner goes to his mine and you feel as drained afterwards. Of course, that kind of work should be amply rewarded. A poet stands by the window watching the rain fall, or looks at the lock of hair of his old sweetheart, scribbles something down on a piece of paper and is through for the day. The most outrageous thing about poetry is that poems composed in such a lackadaisical manner end up in anthologies your kids are supposed to study in school. Not only that, but they may fall in love with them, memorize them, and try to imitate them. “Poetry is dead!,” someone shouts happily every now and then, to the relief of parents and those among the educated who never read poetry. No such luck. One just has to see the number of poetry submissions the magazines, including ones that never publish poetry, receive every day. Today more than ever, there are thousands and thousands of people writing poetry in this country, some of them attending one of the hundreds of writing workshops being given in universities, colleges and various other venues, and others writing their own, most likely in complete secrecy and with the modest hope of publishing in a literary journal of some repute and perhaps eventually having a book that will be read and admired by fellow poets and a few others who care for poetry.

A successful novelist can, with luck, make a bundle, as can a memoir writer (if he or she is fortunate to have had a mother who murders the author’s father in front of his or her eyes), and a third-rate painter can do quite well if a hotel chain or a bank starts fancying his seascapes and sunflowers, but few poets ever made a living from poetry. In past centuries, they could hope for a dinner invitation from some noblemen holed up in his castle to entertain his drunken guests, or even receive a piece of land from the king after writing a paean to his various conquests and massacres. But in modern times, except in the Soviet Union under Stalin, the possibility that poets might toady up to the high and mighty and live thereafter in clover has been foreclosed. Even Robert Frost, who was immensely popular and widely read during his lifetime, had to get a teaching job to support himself. As for the rest of our great poets, going back to Whitman and Dickinson, their combined income from poetry, if it were known, would make them even more incomprehensible in the eyes of many Americans than they already are.

In a country that now regards money as the highest good, doing something for the love of it is not just odd, but downright perverse. Imagine the horror and anger felt by parents of a son or daughter who was destined for the Harvard Business School and a career in finance but discovered an interest in poetry instead. Imagine their enticing descriptions of the future riches and power awaiting their child while trying to make him or her reconsider the decision. “Who has recognized you as a poet? Who has enrolled you in the ranks of poets?,” the trial judge shouted at the Russian poet Josef Brodsky, before sentencing him to five years of hard labor. “No one,” Brodsky replied. He could have been speaking for all the sons and daughters who had to face their parents’ wrath.


As for me, I still can’t really explain to myself how I became a poet, and I’ve given up trying. What I knew from day one is that money had nothing to do with it. Only once I forgot about that and made a fool of myself. It was back in the early 1970s when I held a lowly teaching job in California and struggled to support my wife and my daughter. On a day when we were supposed to visit some friends in San Francisco, I received a letter in the mail from some guy who was starting a slick artsy magazine and who after telling me how much he liked my poems said he would like to publish a couple of them and pay $600, but he needed them in a hurry. This was a huge sum of money in 1972, particularly for someone whose salary as an assistant professor in a state university was pretty miserable and who was usually flat broke, and whose only other income came from small literary magazines that paid between five and twenty-five dollars per poem and most often nothing at all.

The problem was that I had nothing at that moment I could send him. I ran into the house, got a hold of a yellow pad and a pen, told my wife to drive, and sat in the back seat feverishly trying to write some poems during our trip. The next day when I got home, and for a week after, I continued working on them each day in high spirits and total concentration, while spending the evenings arguing with my wife about how we were going to spend the dough. But one bright sunny morning I rose before anyone else, sat at my desk and read what I’d been working on, and realized that everything about them was totally fake. I tore the poems up with great hurry and embarrassment and went out to take a long walk with my dog.

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