The prosaic reality is poets cannot live on mere air, nor on poetry

Most poets teach, edit and give workshops to supplement earnings, writes Maureen Kennelly. A Poetry Before Profit party has even been mooted

Weekend Review books August 2015. FILE — Clive James, the erudite writer and literary critic, at his home in Cambridge, England, Sept. 25, 2012. James, a towering figure in British intellectual life, is philosophical about his impending death. “Physically, I feel like a multiple car crash in the rain,” James says in 2014. “But spiritually, I feel blessed. I’ve had a long life and got a few things done.” (Hazel Thompson/The New York Times)

Weekend Review books August 2015. FILE — Clive James, the erudite writer and literary critic, at his home in Cambridge, England, Sept. 25, 2012. James, a towering figure in British intellectual life, is philosophical about his impending death. “Physically, I feel like a multiple car crash in the rain,” James says in 2014. “But spiritually, I feel blessed. I’ve had a long life and got a few things done.” (Hazel Thompson/The New York Times)

 

The enchanting phrase “mere air these words, but delicious to hear” belongs to the ancient Greek poet Sappho. “I made it out of a mouthful of air” is one of WB Yeats’s many memorable lines. Both elegantly remind us of poetry’s rich pleasure.

They might also set us thinking that poets have somehow discovered the ability to subsist on thin air. These little miracles of language aren’t quite so magical in conjuring up financial rewards. Clive James suggested that poetry is the enemy because “it’s trying to keep you poor”, and, sadly, the miniature nature of poems is more often matched by basement-level recompense.

This is not a new phenomenon. When Yeats won the Nobel Prize, in 1923, the story goes that Revenue investigated his tax affairs, as it could not countenance that a poet of his profile and position would earn such a meagre income.

Just how, then, do these language workers, shapers and makers meet their material obligations? Most poets have “portfolio careers”, where the pursuits of teaching, editing and workshopping supplement their earnings from poetry. And some poets have found quirky ways of making ends meet.

Gregory Corso thought he’d solve his financial dilemma by stealing from his publisher and friend Lawrence Ferlinghetti, of the famous City Lights bookstore, in San Francisco, only to be rumbled by a neighbouring business. Ferlinghetti did not prosecute him but recouped his losses by taking them out of Corso’s royalties, deeming it the more civilised thing to do.

For Derek Mahon, an earning was briefly found in the offices of D’Arcy McManus (Advertising) Ltd, where he toiled during the birth of Pampers. His hilarious account sees the poet and colleagues bunched around a bearded man emptying an ink bottle into a nappy. All this for an inadequate salary, soon to be abandoned.

Marianne Moore might well have found her fortune in the naming of automobiles for the Ford corporation. Its enjoinder to Moore proposed: “All we want is a colossal name (another ‘Thunderbird’ would be fine). And, of course, it is expected that our relations will be on a fee basis of an impeccably dignified kind.”

Moore’s final suggestion of Utopian Turtle Top didn’t quite meet their simple demands, but it did inspire some brilliant correspondence.

It is a sad fact that fees of an “impeccably dignified kind” are rarely paid to poets. While poets reading on the American circuit can sometimes command significant payment, it is a world away from our own scene, where something akin to €200 is the more usual reward. A recent column by the poet Pat Cotter highlighted the relatively high rates of pay offered by the New Yorker magazine for short stories. In the magazine’s heyday the fee for a single story could buy five houses. When it comes to poetry, things sadly diminish. A poem in the New Yorker might fetch its maker $460. The august Paris Review is not so far ahead of our own Poetry Ireland Review in offering $75.

Luckily we do live in a country that, as the Australian poet Vincent Buckley put it, appears to have a “weakness for poetry”. Sales of poetry books here compare quite well with other countries, and a number of supports are available to those who, as Paula Meehan mischievously put it, “burrow away in the poetry mines”.

Recent contemplation of the curious attributes of this often miraculous and most definitely not-for-profit enterprise led the poet and scientist Iggy McGovern to propose the establishment of the Poetry Before Profit party.

Maureen Kennelly is director of Poetry Ireland

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