Students overwhelm campus poetry readings, and poetry open-mike nights
have seen a marked rise in attendance over the last decade.
Poetry is popular -- but can poets make a living through their art?
Mark Vinz is a university professor of English. He explains what draws
his students to poetry: "The good ones: a love of language, a particular poet
or teacher, something they don't understand. The weaker ones: mainly the need
to write down feelings, to impress somebody, to be trendy."
Students must understand that being a poet isn't simply about writing poetry.
This particular branch of creative writing involves constant change and rigorous
"They also learn quickly that writing poetry means a life-long devotion
to studying the craft," Vinz continues. "To reading, to revising and practicing
endlessly. Paul Valery said, 'A poem is never finished, only abandoned.'"
Many students who contribute to poetry's increased popularity plan to pursue
it only as an extra-curricular activity. For some, however, the interest remains
"You'll never be able to make a living writing poems," says former Poet
Laureate Ted Kooser, in an excerpt from his book entitled The Poetry Home
Repair Manual, published by the University of Nebraska Press.
"Writing poems won't go very far toward paying your electric bill. A poem
published in one of the very best literary magazines in the country might
net you a check for enough money to buy half a sack of groceries."
The plain truth about poetry as a profession is that it doesn't pay well.
Publishing proves a complex hierarchy of red tape. Unfair odds are stacked
up against young, inexperienced poets struggling to pay off loans.
"I don't think many, if any, poets make their livings directly or exclusively
from writing poetry today," David Solheim says. He's a professor of English.
History tends to deceive. Poets in the past were not writing poetry for
a living. Before the late 19th century, poets had benefactors who would support
them financially. Others relied on family fortunes.
The education required to write well was limited to the upper classes.
Thanks to financial independence and access to education, people were free
to pursue poetry at their leisure.
Today, those in the poetry profession must support themselves. Since publication
doesn't supply a steady income, one must look elsewhere for economic stability.
"All of us have jobs to pay the rent," says Lorna Crozier, a professor
of poetry. "Teaching summer or weekend workshops; getting tenured, regular
or short-term contract jobs at a university or college. One of my friends
drives a cab, another cooks in a logging camp in the summer."
"Some make a living through giving readings, editing books and teaching
workshops on writing," Solheim says. "More, as I do, work in education for
our main livelihood and just continue writing.
"The study of literature is a good background, and can lead to related
careers," adds Solheim.
He believes that publication experience is also important to developing
a successful writing career. "The best education is reading and writing. One's
success as a writer increases each time he or she is published."
Students interested in a poetry career should know of the concessions many
modern poets have made in order to pursue the art.
"Giving up any hope of fame," Crozier says. "Accepting that the audience
will be small. Giving up any hope of making a living from one's art. Realizing
that there will never be enough time to write what you want because it's necessary
to work at another job that takes up most of your time and creative energy."
However, most modern poets aren't in it for money or fame. Poets write
to express themselves, to enjoy an art that is so much a part of their lives.
They write poetry for reasons wholly unknown to anyone but themselves.
"Look at it this way," Kooser continues. "Any activity that's worth lots
of money, like professional basketball, comes with rules pinned all over it.
In poetry, the only rules worth thinking about are the standards of perfection
you set for yourself."
The modern interest in poetry among students is hard to deny. A fresh batch
of faces has emerged to carry the art onwards. Poetry is a constantly changing
world. And those who plan to live in it must be prepared to accept what comes
with the title "poet."
"Poetry has always changed," concludes Vinz. "One has only to look at the
tradition to see a series of revolutions and counter-revolutions, such as
the Beats against the academics in the mid-20th century U.S., or the Romantics
against the rationalists in the 18th and 19th centuries in England.
"But poetry has always stayed the same in that it deals with the most important
elements of our lives -- those things (e.g. love, morality, loss) that are
the very hardest to put into words."
The Academy of American Poets
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The Walt Whitman Archive
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