Friday, 2 July 2010

Working Poets

I haven’t written a blog since the Oxford P of P elections. It’s not that I’ve been licking my wounds, I’ve just been busy catching up on things I had left aside. And, who knows, if I am alive and kicking at the next election, I may have another go.

I’ll eventually continue my previous blog on poets I have known, but I’ve been distracted by a by-product of the P of P spat between Michael Horovitz and Roger Lewis: a letter Horovitz wrote to the Times concluding

‘Lewis’s prescription that in order to be “any good” as a poet, just make sure you hold down a proper job, is as antipoetic as most of his guff. If followed to the letter, it would have left the bookshelves of the world with nothingness where at present the poetries of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Burns, Blake, Emily Dickinson, Yeats, W.H. Davies, Ezra Pound, Dylan Thomas, Hugh MacDiarmid, Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Joseph Brodsky, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Roger McGough, Carol Ann Duffy and many others who regard their proper job as poetry itself happily reside.’

I chose to make my living by other means than poetry because I feared having to ‘perform’ for others as a poet, feeling pressure to produce on demand, teaching poetry in academic settings where it becomes reduced to prose, teaching it as part of ‘creative writing’ courses when I don’t even see it as creative writing, being known to the world (and women) as a poet before I am known as a man – and so on. I would have liked to earn a living by writing prose, but I couldn’t sell my early prose. Hardy, Graves, and Seymour-Smith lived from prose and kept it distinct from poetry. But I can’t think of any poet I admire who lived entirely from poetry. The poetry of ‘Public poets’, whether rebellious like Byron or conformist like Tennyson, wears thin with time.

Look at Horovitz’s list. How many of these poets had or have (exclusively, as Horovitz implies) ‘proper jobs’ as poets? I know nothing about how the last three earn their living, and not much about Plath and Hughes although she didn’t earn a living from poetry and he did not at first. Of the others, two (Wordsworth, Burns) worked for the government until they could live off their poetry, one (Blake) earned his living all his life as an engraver, one (Brodsky) was a university professor. McDiarmaid was in the army in WWI and then a journalist. The rest were dependent on others for money: Coleridge lived largely off the charity of friends, Shelley and Lowell had inheritances, Dickinson was supported in her family, Pound eventually had a rich wife, Davies lived off various odd jobs as a tramp but then on charity, and Thomas was a sponger on friends (see Norman Cameron’s poem which begins ‘Who invited him in, the dirty little intruder?’

None of these lived off ‘their proper job as poetry’. But Horovitz has a point in that none of them is commonly identified with a particular job other than poetry.

Of the few living poets I know and admire, one teaches in adult education, another was a computer programmer, another was a civil servant, another was head of a primary school, another works for a cultural foundation. They are dependent on nobody.

Among other 20th century poets who did hold down a ‘proper job’ other than poetry were the career diplomats Valentin Iremonger (for Ireland), St-John Perse (France), and Robert Ford (Canada); the civil servant Paul Valery; the school-teachers Wilhelm Lehmann and Sorley MacLean; the journalist and music critic Eugenio Montale.

I think I am in good company.


At 18 February 2011 at 10:56 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is an outrageously class-bound and 18th-century assumption that a poet must not do anything other than be a poet. Keats was a medical apprentice, Clare a labourer, John Hamilton Reynolds a solicitor, Eliot a banker... even Seamus Heaney can't pay for his dinner off the back of mere poetry - even he has to have an academis job to pay the bills. Good on you Sean!

At 21 February 2011 at 15:00 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Anonymous. This log has been moribund. I must start it up again -


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