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Poetry: An Art to Live By?

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 dedication.

"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 a constant.

"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
Find a poem, poet, poetry community or event in your state

The Walt Whitman Archive
Works, images and a biography of one of America's most influential poets

Poetry Magazine
Some of the finest poetry published today

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