The author Elizabeth Gilbert, in her 2015 book Big Magic, sets out to help people find a way to live their lives creatively.
Gilbert is careful to state that living a creative life is not necessarily about:
“pursuing a life that is professionally or exclusively devoted to the arts,”
and is instead about
“living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.”
The opening section of the book is called ‘Courage’ and starts with a discussion of one of her favourite poets, Jack Gilbert.
(Image from: The New York Times)
Jack Gilbert was an American poet who worked in factories from a young age, whilst simultaneously feeling a strong desire to write poetry. Despite winning numerous awards, he shunned success and lived a life dotted with only four collections, after fifty years of writing. Jack said of poetry:
“It’s not a business with me . . . . I’m not a professional of poetry, I’m a farmer of poetry.”
On the MA Course that I am currently undertaking, students are consistently warned by industry professionals, that is is extremely hard to make a living out of poetry.
We had professionals help us explore different means of making poetry work for us, such as conducting workshops in the community and building up a reputation.
The merits of further study were heralded, as was the need for self promotion in the form of readings and performances.
Thinking creatively about what one can do was admired, and the many avenues with which to ‘buy’ time to write, such as Poet in Residence programmes, were advertised.
However it was made clear that the idea a poet would have an agent is almost unheard of, and the reality of poetry collections is that they are not big sellers in the modern world.
A new poet being published by one of the leading houses does happen, but is rare and competitive. It seems obvious therefore that a day job or another career to support a poet’s poetry is integral to attending to the practicalities of life.
What is often overlooked is the value in the day job – apart from practically.
Gilbert in Big Magic talks of how she never would have wanted to demand from her creativity, that it make her a living.
She felt this would take the joy out of it and apply too much pressure to the fragile nature of inspiration.
Jack Gilbert on the other hand seemed primed for success with his work, but chose to live a life full of other pursuits and did not seem to make poetry his one single focus.
For others still a day job will leave a lasting legacy.
Philip Larkin was an extremely successful Librarian until he died. This resonates with me in particular, as I too am a Librarian.
Perhaps not such an incompatible role for a poet, not simply for the fact it involves books, but for the discipline and organisation they both require.
Larkin, often considered one of the finest poets in Britain’s history, was not overly preoccupied with making poetry his one path in life.
Although tipped to become Poet Laureate, he preferred not to take such a high profile role. Similar to Jack Gilbert, Larkin only produced a relatively small body of work compared to the critical acclaim he achieved.
Just four volumes of poetry and at just over one hundred pages long. He shunned publicity and often refused to do interviews.
Instead he spent forty years working as a professional librarian supporting himself, as well as devising several new library systems. He has been described by a colleague as :
“a great figure in post-war British librarianship”
Another successful poet, (this time across the Atlantic in America) who also had a long standing career outside of poetry, is WIlliam Carlos Williams. Described as living ‘a remarkably conventional life’ Carlos was a doctor in a New Jersey town for over forty years and is said to have written poems on prescription pads
So why is it now, as I sit amongst my peers on an MA in Creative Writing, do we feel the pressure as writers and poets to make a living, to make enough money out of our words to live comfortably?
Writers such as JK Rowling and E.L James have publicly made millions of pounds with popular and successful novels. Yet both struggled for many years with rejections and other careers before these millions were made. It is also notable that both of these writers are prose writers, we do not hear similar stories about poets.
Luke Johnson, in an article for The Wall Street Journal writes:
“I’ll tell my oldest friends about the book I’ve recently published. They’ll react with appropriate excitement, go on to ask me about advances and book tours. Then, they tilt their head in confusion when I tell them that a book of poems isn’t quite the same as a book of prose. No book tours, no grandiose payments.”
He describes the ‘glow’ that a poet feels after completing a poem. The magical quality that comes just after a first draft has been poured out onto page, or phone, or laptop. When it seems miraculous that you have managed to make something so seemingly significant, that has captured the essence of an idea and made it somewhat tangible, for those few lines on a page. He then goes on to say:
“But, alas, glow doesn’t pay the rent. So, poets teach, or they go back to school so they can later teach, or they collect obscure job titles to one day use in a cheeky contributor note…Some of them, often the best of them, will go undercover—wear suits and carry briefcases, returning to their writing desk only after the sun has gone down and the city has gone to sleep.”
He then goes on to say something that I think is exceedingly important to remember and what is at the heart of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic:
“After hours at my desk, the most I’ll ever have to show is another poem, and that is enough (it has to be).”
There also lies the punchline, in order for that to be enough, we have to work outside of our poems to sustain not just ourselves but our art.
Luke Johnson’s article is titled “I’m a Poet. Yes, That’s a Real Job.”- The Oxford Dictionary defines Poet as ‘A person who writes poems.’
Perhaps the definition of a Poet should be ‘ A person who writes poems, whilst holding down a job, many jobs or career.’
Further still, perhaps we need to acknowledge the idea that a day job is useful to create wonderful poetry. William Carlos Williams’s poetry often drew upon the lives of regular people, the people he met whilst at work.
Perhaps art + life = creative balance?
Much love Txx