Poetry is the hyphenated profession. Poets in the United States are most often poet-teachers, which may be why so much poetry of only minimal interest to the general public is being written today. But they can also be poet-radiologists or poet-lawyers or poet-doctors. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it provides the poets in question with substantial material for their writing.
Most American poets who are foolish or stubborn enough to try to earn a living solely from their art would end up like English visionary poet William Blake, an artisan-artist marginalized by the Industrial Revolution and scraping together a very meager income from hack work.
Making a decent living as a poet in modern-day America simply cannot be done because the culture does not grant poets the monetary rewards their work may deserve. The book buying public simply will not purchase enough books of poetry to keep a poet afloat, regardless of the amount of marketing and promotion lavished upon them by devoted publishers. Grants and fellowships may provide a short-term income, but they are equivalent to winning the lottery, and the pursuit of them, the pressure to produce work on schedule, and the need to account for and justify one’s time as a recipient are a tremendous drain on a poet’s creative energies.
Teaching appears to be the most appealing answer for many poets, but teaching carries its own inherent risks. The university may be a haven from the vicissitudes of the business world, but the poet who opts for a career as an academic will most likely find that he has gained financial security while jeopardizing his talent. The classroom steals one’s creative energies while the politics of academe, especially the tenure system, necessitates a compromise of one’s honesty and integrity. For the true poet, this is not an acceptable exchange. As Robert Calasso writes in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, beauty and necessity do not keep company. Not a single one of my divine dozen favorite poets ¾ e.g., D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, W.B. Yeats, Walt Whitman ¾ was an academic. And please note that these poets were not independently wealthy nor were they married to heiresses. They had to earn a living somehow, and while some of them chose a professional path that was not related to writing, others managed to keep their heads above water by a shrewd combination of skill and opportunism.
So how does the American poet interested in making a living from poetry resolve the work dilemma? Perhaps a contemporary poet should follow the trail blazed by Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and John Ciardi. All three of these poets began with an enormous amount of talent, and an equal portion of good luck. Call it a blessing by the poetry gods, if you don‘t believe in luck. In any event, these poets are among the fortunate few who know how to make use of the media.
For most of his adult life, Whitman continuously revised his magnum opus Leaves of Grass and doggedly pursued publicity in the press. He was a former journalist and used his contacts to his advantage by writing and publishing his own reviews. Photography had become an important tool and Whitman capitalized on its popularity by striking the pose of a poet extraordinaire for the camera.
Robert Frost became American television’s first celebrity poet. He cultivated his image as a gifted New England farm boy, made appearances on the various talk shows of the day, and was embraced as a media darling. This was capped by John Kennedy’s invitation to read at his 1961 presidential inauguration.
Italian American poet John Ciardi graduated from Harvard and made strategic use of the contacts he had solidified there. He was also media savvy, and navigated the swift currents of New York magazine and book publishing with great finesse. In addition, he wrote a long-running language column for the Saturday Review and was able to position himself as an authority on all things linguistic, literary and poetical. It certainly didn’t hurt his career when his translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy was established as the definitive one for his generation.
If you examine the history of successful poets (and artists) you would be surprised at how many of them were skillful at business and/or self promotion. Today, poets should emulate the models of Robert Pinsky, Billy Collins, Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. These four authors have positioned themselves as iconic figures in the pantheon of living poets by being versatile, adaptable, and shrewd. They have learned how to multitask. In the case of Pinsky and Collins, they have combined the skills of public office as poet laureates with public readings and lucrative visiting professorships. In addition, Pinsky has followed Ciardi’s lead by translating Dante’s Inferno. Continual academic studies, poetry festivals and the ongoing attention in the media have stoked the public’s fascination with the Beat movement, and the members of the original core group have been canonized. Snyder and Ferlinghetti have subsequently turned their membership to immense advantage. That is not to say that their work is in any way diminished by this celebrity status. They have consistently produced excellent work in spite of their being championed by both academe and the popular press. Snyder’s essays on environmentalism provide him with a robust source of income, as has Ferlinghetti’s financial ties to City Lights Books. Significant prizes and awards have augmented their success. Indeed, a happy conjunction of talent, acumen and good fortune have enabled these four contemporary poets to reap great rewards from their profession.
Although most poets are not on the receiving end of a such a host of powerful forces, the important thing to keep in mind is the principle that talent and hard work are often not enough to make a career of poetry. Anyone who aspires to be a professional poet must also be willing to develop skills not normally associated with literary work.
A free copy of “The Videographer,” a story from A. S. Maulucci’s new book, Anxious Love, is available as a download at www.lorenzopress.com. He is also the author of 100 Love Sonnets, Dear Dante, and several other books. You can read his poetry at www.greentigerproductions.com and his fiction at www.anthonymaulucci.com. His books are available online from Amazon.com.
Causes Anthony Maulucci Supports
Greenpeace, Amnesty Inernational, American Cancer Society, Red Cross, Save the Children