Poets’ Work, Poets’ Jobs

How Do We Make a Living?

Let’s dig into the realities of the so-called profession. Here’s a journey into the dailiness of the lives of the poets—how do we make a living? It’s adapted from a piece by Robert Phillips first published in The Associated Writing Programs’ Chronicle of December 1997, who granted permission. Phillips earns his bread as a Professor of English in the Creating Writing Program at the University of Houston.

THE QUESTION OF HOW A WRITER EARNS HIS LIVING...

...never used to come up, especially among poets. A poet worked at anything other than poetry. Chaucer was a clerk of the King’s Works, Cowley and Gay were professional secretaries. Shakespeare was a man of the theater. Donne and Swift were deans of churches, and Herrick was a vicar. The Earl of Rochester was a comptroller, and Gray a professor of history. Aphra Behn was a spy, and Chatterton was a forger. Robert Burns was a farmer and Melville a sailor and clerk. Stephen Crane was a war correspondent, and Edwin A. Robinson worked in a customs house. Ralph Hodgson was a breeder of bull terriers, and Ruth Pitter hand-painted metal trays for a living. For eleven years A.E. Housman was a clerk in a patent office before becoming a professor of Latin. James Dickey worked for McCann-Erickson, an advertising agency. Archibald MacLeish was Director of the Office of Facts and Figures during World War II, and Marianne Moore was an assistant in the Hudson Park Branch of the New York Public Library.

Philip Larkin and Jorge Luis Borges were also librarians. Robert Frost was a poultry farmer. Hart Crane packed candy in his father’s warehouse, worked in a printshop, wrote advertising copy, was a riveter in a Lake Erie shipyard, and finally managed a tea-room. Richard Eberhart was vice president of the Butcher Wax Company in Boston, and married the president’s daughter.

That’s one way for a writer to live well—marry well. On the other hand, Grace Paley’s advice to aspiring writers has been, “Keep a low overhead, and never live with anyone who doesn’t respect your work.” David Ignatow was a salesman and finally president of his father’s book bindery. (Ever a realist, Ignatow wrote in his Notebooks, “Being a poet is to know you do not exist by poetry.”) When the bindery was dissolved for financial reasons, Ignatow worked in public relations, as a night shipping clerk in a wholesale vegetable market, as a paper salesman to book publishers, as a messenger for Western Union, and as a weekend admissions clerk for a Brooklyn hospital. He also worked in the New Jersey Shipyard, as a department store shoe salesman, and as a night clerk in the New York Sanitation Department Incinerator Plant.

Then there are the famous examples of the Modernist poets and how they earned their livings: William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician, T.S. Eliot a banker, and Wallace Stevens a vice president of an insurance company and an expert on the bond market. Williams claimed that working with common people filled his ears with spoken American language which he could use in his poetry, Eliot declared he was fascinated by “the science of money,” and indeed he began to write poetry again after a long hiatus once he joined Lloyd’s Bank in London, as if he needed the discipline or protection of a “regular” job...

On the other hand, there are some poets who worked hard at not working. Francis Thompson failed his medical exams five times, failed as a book salesman, failed as a shoe salesman, then enlisted in the army but was discharged as being unfit. He then sold matches on street corners, ran errands, hailed cabs for pedestrians, and became such a shabby bum that he was not allowed entrance to the British Museum. John Clare was a farm laborer, worked in a lime kiln, enlisted in the militia, roamed with gypsies, fathered nine children, and became a vagrant. His years spent in insane asylums may well have been willed upon himself as one way to have a roof over his head and three squares a day. They also gave him time to write his poetry.

More recently some post-modern poets have done a variety of things.

John Hall Wheelock was an editor at Scribner’s. William Bronk sold fuel oil, Ted Kooser sold insurance. Dana Gioia was head of the beverage division of General Foods—remember the jingle, “Make friends with Koolaid, make Koolaid friends”? Terry Kistler is an investment banker. Donald Axxin is a real estate developer. Chris Busa is a fisherman and Stanley Kunitz for many years was a reference book compiler. Barbara Harr and Eric Muirhead drove taxicabs.

~Robert Phillips