Word for Word: ‘Tax workers’ with a fine line in poetry

Some poets are so embarrassed to say what they do that they’d rather tell people they work for Revenue

Paul Muldoon: “My God, where’s the door?” Photograph: Dave Kotinsky/Getty

Paul Muldoon: “My God, where’s the door?” Photograph: Dave Kotinsky/Getty


In a brilliant collection of prose pieces, The Outnumbered Poet, the late, much-missed Dennis O’Driscoll writes that he would have found it “embarrassing or presumptuous” to assign the word poet or artist to himself. Surprisingly, some poets invoke the much-maligned job of tax man when describing their chosen careers. The US poet Charles Simic suggested that parents would prefer their children to be taxidermists and tax collectors than poets.

The fine Scottish poet Don Paterson says he is still embarrassed by the appellation poet. When asked about his profession, he sometimes says he works for the Inland Revenue, thereby killing the conversation more kindly, he believes, than if he were to admit to being a poet.

O’Driscoll revelled in the collection of such delightful quotes and in fact toiled for many years at Revenue himself. Like many others, he combined dual careers all his working life. His Civil Service and poetic lives merged sweetly together when he was invited to write a poem to mark the opening of the Revenue Museum at Dublin Castle. The resulting poem, At the Revenue Museum, can be seen in the crypt of Dublin Castle, hanging, as he put it, “among ledger and hydrometer, tax-calculating machine and drugs lavatory”.

Paula Meehan has spoken of her late father taking seriously her career choice only upon her name becoming a bet at his local bookmaker’s.

At this year’s Dublin Writers’ Festival, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz recounted that growing up in a tough neighbourhood in San Francisco prevented an announcement of his aspiration to be a poet, as it would most likely have resulted in physical violence.

Of late, I was intrigued to hear Peter Fallon introduce himself: “I write poems.”

In typically hilarious vein, Paul Muldoon says that he would never introduce himself as a poet. “I mean, if someone comes up to me and says, ‘Hello, I’m a poet,’ I sort of think, My God, where’s the door?”

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