Are All Poets Penniless | Labor of Love Or Fate of Drudgery | Great Poets Die Hungry

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This week I’ve been trying my best to stay level headed post Naked Soul: The Erotic Love Poems book launch. Truthfully, I’ve been as excitable as a chef just before Thanksgiving! My debut collection of erotic love poems was published in eBook on January 23 and I have sold just over 100 eBooks in my first month. Well, 100 might not seem a big number and certainly it is not but what I can tell you is at the time of drafting this blog, my book is at Top #7 in Love Poem and ranked Top #47222 out of 3,000,000+ eBooks on the Amazon Kindle store.

The reason I am taking about the sales number and book ranking is because, well, I thought it is worth talking about this ancient curiosity shared by all: “Are all poets penniless?”

Is poetry a labor of love or an occupation of toil and drudgery? I’m hoping to bring some perspective and calm to my current ‘pressure cooker’ mind with this current blog. This post is not just a note to myself but a new balanced perspective, something to consider, specially by the writers, poets and all the artists out there.

To start with (and I’m not trying to tempt fate here or anything!)  I’m focusing my attention on a handful of great poets who only achieved fame and wealth after death. Well, some great poets might have died poor but their legacy is certainly richer than many of the rich from the recent times.

 Years, decades and even a century or two after their passing, several major literary geniuses (who may have been blessed with the odd peak of recognition while alive) have gone on to have an unimaginable impact on the literary world – dominating classrooms, bookshelves, literati events and book groups, not just Stateside but across the globe.

Let’s take a look at some of these writers and poets.

 

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson was born in December 1830 in Massachusetts. A sociable youngster who maintained good relationships and friendships throughout her childhood and youth; she began writing poetry in her teens. It’s clearly obvious from her writing that the death of close friends and family members during adolescence strongly influenced her.

Her Poem Because I Could not Stop for Death is the first that springs to mind.

 

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labour, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school where children played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then ’tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.

 

Her most intense writing period began in her late twenties and lasted several years, she is said to have written a staggering 1100 poems during this time; some of which she did share with close friends and family, but the majority of which, she kept to herself. Pretty much a recluse by the time she died aged fifty-five in 1886, Dickson had written around 1800 poems.  It was following her death (and against her dying wishes) that family members decided to publish and share her magnificent work some years on.

 

John Keats

John Keats was born in London, England in 1795. The poor guy’s short life was plagued by death from an early age – with both parents dying by the time he’d reached fourteen. Leaving school aged sixteen, Keats maintained a healthy interest in literature even while working in the medical profession alongside his guardian (a man so deceitful he kept Keats’ large inheritance which he’d been entrusted to look after).

Keats penned his first poem during 1816, aged eighteen; his first book called Poems followed during 1817.

A year after abandoning the medical establishment to pursue poetry as a profession, Keats’ life was once again haunted by death when his brother, Tom, contracted and died from Tuberculosis, the same illness which killed his mother.

In 1819, despite mounting financial problems and ill health, Keats was somehow able to write a significant amount of poetry; he also met and fell in love with a young girl called Fanny Brawne. Sadly his wish to marry the eighteen–year-old was never realised due to his lack of finances.  As if life hadn’t been tragic enough for John Keats, in 1820 he too become desperately ill with Tuberculosis. Despite his illness, he managed to publish a second volume of poems. During the same year Keats travelled to Italy hoping the warmer surroundings would help with his illness. Sadly it was not to be, one of the greatest poets to have ever lived, died in February 1821, lowly regarded and poor..

 

The Eve of St Agnes by John Keats is (in my opinion) one of his best works.

 

Edgar Allan Poe

For someone born so long ago (1809) it blows my mind to think that Edgar Allan Poe still courts such influence, interest and popularity over literary and cultural circles today.

And if you thought Keats’ life was tragic, I think Poe’s was equally tumultuous – as a baby he was abandoned by his father and when his mother died of tuberculosis during 1811, he was forced to live with foster parents.

Poe, a military man for a brief time before turning his hand to writing full time, is attributed to having invented the detective fiction genre. His name is also synonymous with chilling and macabre poetry and stories.

Like Emily Dickinson, death featured heavily in Poe’s work, including in his most famous poem, The Raven.

This poem, by all accounts, turned him into a literary sensation for some time. Unfortunately, maybe because he was a heavy drinker who could no longer hold down a job, he never equalled its success with any of his following work.

It’s been documented that the death of his wife Virginia Clemm (who also just happened to be his cousin, aged thirteen when he married her) exacerbated Poe’s drinking. Many conspiracy theories about his death have been circulated, but Poe is reported to have died penniless, dishevelled and unconscious in a Baltimore gutter, aged just forty.

 

Phillis Wheatly

Phillis Wheatly’s life story is equally interesting and heart breaking. Kidnapped from West Africa when she was around seven years old in 1753, she arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, on a slave ship where she was purchased by John Wheatley as a servant for his wife, Susanna, who quickly came to recognize and nurture Phillis’ writing talent. The Wheatleys decided not to train Phillis as a slave.

By publishing Poems on various subjects, religion and moral Wheatley made history by becoming the first female African American to publish a book of poems. She even travelled to London, promoting her poetry. I can imagine that for a while her life must’ve felt pretty amazing, especially when compared to the lives of other African Americans at that time. I can’t help thinking that things would’ve had a happier ending for Philllis Wheatley, had Susanna and John Wheatley still been alive after she married.

Wheatly married John Peters in 1778. They lived in poor conditions, but worse, had to endure the death of two infant children. After her husband was imprisoned during 1784, impoverished, Wheatley was left looking after her third child. Sadly, she died young at age thirty-one. Her sick infant son is said to have died a few hours later.

Read her famous poem On Being Brought from Africa to America here.

 

Poets persecuted for their writing and beliefs

I was thinking of moving on to something a bit more light-hearted, but if you don’t mind I’ll get one more ‘sad’ topic out of the way first.

We’re moving on to poets who are persecuted for their writing, as in poets who express opinions in their work, which goes against the establishment of their countries.

 

Ovid

The first that I can think of is, Roman poet Ovid, back in 8AD he was banished to Tomis, a remote province on the Black Sea, by the Emperor Augustus, it’s difficult to pinpoint the motivation which led to his exile but speculation points to the simple reason that the emperor was unhappy with something the poet had written!

 

Enoh Meyomesse

Sadly a similar type of punishment remains commonplace in some societies even in this day and age. Cameroonian poet, political activist and blogger Enoh Meyomesse is currently serving a prison sentence which he maintains is due to personal views expressed in his writing and for his political activism.

Read more on Meyomesse and some of his poetry here.

 

Mahvash Sabet

Iranian teacher, turned poet, Sabet’s translated book Prison Poems was published on April 1, 2013. She wrote this collection while serving (along with other leaders of Iran’s *Baha’i community) a twenty year prison sentence in Tehran’s Evin prison because of her religious beliefs.

*The Baha’i religion was founded in Iran in 1863, making it one of the world’s youngest religions. This religion accepts all other faiths as true and valid. It also teaches that there should be no inequality when it comes to gender or race.

 I’m left wondering, what’s not to like? Read her Lights Out poem on this blog.

 

Successful Poets – What’s the Secret?

I’ve covered a lot of the tragedies and hardships experienced by poets in this blog, so I want to finish by letting you know:

It’s not all Bad News!

 

Yes, we can breathe a sigh of relief now as I’m happy say that there are many poets and writers do seem to live comfortable and successful lives, many are actually poets who never gave up their day jobs.

 

Lewis Carroll

It was a huge surprise for me to find out that the author of Alice in Wonderland was actually a Mathematician (who wrote several books on Mathematics under his real name (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson).

Incredibly, he was also a teacher for twenty-six years!  But he also found time to work on a few inventions too, creating (amongst other things) a device called the nyctograph which allowed for night time writing (presumably with himself in mind because he was so busy during the day doing his other jobs!)

Read My Fairy, a poem written by Lewis Carroll when he was only 13 years old.

 

William Carlos Williams

This savvy writer, trained as a doctor and went on to publish his first book Poems in 1909, but continued practicing as a doctor in the New Jersey town of Rutherford for the next 40 years.

Read his A Sort of Song here.

 

T. S. ELIOT

The magnificent Missouri born writer and Harvard graduate settled in England after a spell reading philosophy at a renowned college in Oxford. He wrote his famous poem Prufrock while holding down a job as a bank clerk. After several years in banking he went on to become an editor at publishing house Faber and Faber, where he worked full time for forty years.

Hear Eliot reading The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrok in a Youtube video.

 

Wallace Stevens

Acclaimed poet and also Harvard graduate, Wallace Stevens, published his first book Harmonium in 1923 while working in insurance; an area he would continue in for nearly forty years eventually working his way up to Vice-President of his company by 1934, carrying on in this role even after receiving the prestigious Pulitzer Prize.

Read his wordsOf Modern Poetry” here.

 

Philip Larkin

The British born poet and novelist Philip Larkin actually managed to sneak in quite a lot of writing while working as a librarian. He graduated from Oxford University with first class honors in English during 1943, then worked for thirty years as a librarian at Hull University, where he is said to have produced a vast quantity of his published work.

Read his poem Faith Healing” here. 

 

So perhaps we’re onto something here. Could the secret to keeping yourself from the clutches of poverty lie in having another vocation in life? Should we all, if we haven’t already, add a few more strings to our bows?  Just in case tragedy decides to grab and drop some of us into its murky pool of torture without a second thought, leaving us destitute, penniless and forgotten until the pool is dredged some decades later. (OK, maybe I need to put the Poe books down for now!)

 

The truth is, there a plenty of writers out there that have second jobs, some connected to writing such as tutoring, lecturing and performance poetry; and as some of the last section shows, others have no connection at all. But I don’t think it hurts to have a plan B. Somehow, I can’t imagine Edgar Allan Poe as a doctor or librarian though.

 
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What do you think about writing as a career? If you have a family to support will you take the risk? Or will you fulfill your calling as a writer or poet? Please leave your thoughts and input in the Comments below.

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