Musings Inspired by a Dead Poet’s Livelihood

The trajectory of poets interests me. Poetry has evolved over the centuries. But are poets better off today financially than their 19th century counterparts, for example? I don’t know the answer. There are several factors that come into play, such as opportunity, social standing, education, etc. What I hear is that poetry is the least lucrative career.

The museum visit

So, on my first visit to the Runebergs’ home, I’m attentive. As we waltz from room to room in the Runebergs’ big, lavish and art-filled home, I’m grinning with delight. Because I think I have my question, above, answered.

One of the living rooms

Soon, the guide points out that many of these valuable objects were gifts from friends and fellow artists, and also from distinguished people with money. I can’t help but wonder if there are still generous patrons who believe in poetry, today.

The Runebergs’ notable works on display

I don’t know how much Runeberg made from his poetry. But I learned besides being a poet, he was a priest. Regardless, both JL Runeberg, and his wife, Fredrika produced notable literary works.

Some of their work is in the picture above. Runeberg wrote a poem (pic 1. Maamme-laulu) that became the Finnish national anthem. Fredrika was a writer herself. She is also known as the creator of the Runeberg torte (pic 3. her recipe), and for her love of gardening.

I haven’t visited many dead poets’ homes, but those that I have suggested these poets lived normal lives. This normalcy helps (me) dispel the myth of a starving artist and romanticising of poets as tortured creative genius. You’ve probably read about famous classic poets, who were considered mad and even dangerous.

Poetry is enriching

As I snoop around the poet’s bedroom, it occurs to me (as if for the first time) that poetry makes those who believe in it rich, in ways we can’t always measure in monetary terms. For example, in my case, it’s true that poetry doesn’t pay the bills. But I dare say, poetry helps me reduce a huge chunk of what would be my bills without it in my life.

The poet’s bedroom

Poetry as business

However, I cannot ignore the business side of poetry. Why is it that poetry remains the underdog of literature and being a poet the least lucrative career, when it’s clear it is of value to our society? For example, who writes those business mission statements and advertising slogans? The business poet. Who teaches poetry at school or university? The teacher poet.

But a poet with no prefix or suffix becomes a wayward being, as people don’t comprehend what exactly such a poet does. And their poetry becomes a flight of fancy; a silliness with no great monetary reward. This is despite the robust landscape and revival of poetry.

Give people the opportunity to pay a premium for your work — otherwise they never will.”

~ Cherie Hu

Our hustle culture glorifies long working hours, but sadly not those of a poet. While society undervalues the poet’s labour, sometimes it’s poets themselves complicit in accepting the presumption about poetry. Maybe it’s because of the many rejections we receive.

Some of the poet’s writings displayed in the reception room

I’ll admit, my own insecurities often distort how I view my writing. But I’m slowly learning to show up for poetry, more so as an indie author. “Getting out of people’s wallets” is what I’m doing, for starters. I no longer assume everyone wants a cheaper option. That’s why I like the quote by above.

Questions for poets to ponder

I don’t know the answer to the question I posed, at the beginning. Instead, I have other questions for us to ponder on. Where does the sizeable chunk of your financial sustenance come from? Or does the idea of poetry and money in the same sentence make you uncomfortable? Why? Care to share!

I’m also extending the questions to writers and artists, at large. NB. I’m not asking the amount, unless you want to share it, but the source. 🙂 For example, book sales, speaking engagements, ghostwriting, etc.

Recommended reads for the reluctant poetry reader

  • Why Poetry? by Matthew Zapruder, on what poetry alone can do
  • We Are Poetry by Kym Gordon Moore, on poetry as magnetic power to create a common ground of conversations and connectedness that can bridge polarization
  • Poetry Pharmacy by William Sieghart, for poetic prescriptions that offer comfort, delight and inspiration.
  • Poetry Unbound edited by Pádraig Ó. Tuama, to open up your world.
  • Our Words, Our Worlds edited by Makhosazana Xaba, on the power of creativity and centrality of poetry in a changing society
Runeberg Torte postcard

PS. In Finland, February 5th is Runeberg Day, a celebration of the poet’s birthday. So, Runeberg torte is the indulgence, today. Apparently, the national poet enjoyed it with punch, every breakfast! And so, to all my Finnish readers, Hyvää Runebergin päivää!

Khaya Ronkainen
Khaya Ronkainen is a writer, poet and creative professional. Her blog focuses on all things poetry and creative nonfiction.


  1. I think these days it depends also on your social media footprint. The case of Rupi Kaur’s popularity is interesting – whether or not one subscribes to her form of poetry. There are people making tons of money from poetry while the vast majority barely gets read. I personally know very few people in real life (non-poets/non-writers) who would go out and buy a poetry book. But we still write and there are many days I wonder why!

  2. Your comments about poetry could easily apply to writing fiction, Khaya. After over a decade of writing, I still have never covered my costs. So why bother? Because creativity is a core need and I wouldn’t exist as the person I am without finding a way to appease the creative impulse. I would be a miserable mushroom sprouting on the couch. I love it when readers enjoy my work, but I would do it regardless. There is something sublime released to the cosmos when we create.

  3. It seems like artists in general are undervalued and under-appreciated. Maybe it’s because they walk to the beat of a different drum or live on a higher plane of reality than the average, ordinary person.

  4. What a thought-provoking post you have written Khaya. Your questions are extremely valid and truly there are no easy answers on making our genre profitable. The hardest part is what we do after the book is done, or we will fade into the sunset. Oh, before I forget, THANK YOU so very much my dear friend for the mention of my book in your post. I appreciate that more than you know. 🙏🏼 To be in the company of these other poets is such an honor I am humbled by your generosity. So thank you once again. 🤗

    Bravo for taking a tour of Runeberg’s home and observing the many artifacts representing his craft and life. 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼 Your photography in capturing the various focal points in his residence is awesome! Thank you for sharing that.

    Sadly, there is no specific formula for achieving financial success in our genre. It depends on demographics, opportunity found in those areas, opportunities you find in other areas not necessarily poetry, and the amount of time and elbow grease you put into your promotional channels. What may work for me may not work for someone else, and vice versa. So to quantify our success is hard to measure. It’s like the A/B testing you find in marketing.

    Don’t get discouraged, which is easier said than done. Like Dawn Pisturino mentioned, we walk to the beat of a different drummer. Artists, musicians, writers, culinary artists and other creatives function a little differently and we don’t excuse why we are unique, we embrace our blessings. So cheers to a new, productive, profitable, magical, and FANtabulous week ahead sister girlfriend. Hugs and smooches! 😍💖🥰💋😘

  5. Disclosure: I haven’t attempted to make money from writing because I have a full-time job doing something else, so thus, I’m not reliant on my writing to earn my income. That said, I think you bring up a lot of fascinating questions around the business of poetry, writing, and art.

  6. Khaya, an in-depth, informative and thought-provoking poem that waltzes between the fascinating world of the Runebergs and the financial reward (or lack thereof) for present-day poets (and writers!) Firstly, a belated Happy Runebergs Day and hope you had a lovely time and oh, the cake sounds and looks delicious. I’m not sure about eating that for breakfast every day – and definitely not the punch! It is thrilling to see the actual houses of poets and writers and I adore the case of his work notes which are so precious! But yes, there was patronage and he was one to receive this – but imagine all the poets who went without then as well! I love the quote about not undervaluing one’s work and that yes, the poet / writer has to be the first to put a premium on it. Yet, sadly, the reality is that in the UK the majority of writers cannot make a living from their work – passion for the craft, joy of writing, of sharing any way possible it the impetus for many – with the hope that maybe bigger representation will happen one day!

  7. Fascinating post, thank you Khaya.
    Alas, there is no money to be made from poetry — that’s why poets become copywriters or teachers IMHO.
    I have heard it said that there are today more poets than there are readers of poetry.
    It’s hard work — both the writing of and reading/understanding of a poem IMHO.
    If one is good enough, the work lives on and that’s the reward. Hence dead poets as a common phrase

  8. Oh yes, there’s that too! Being a project, that is, branding of the Self. But on serious note, having a lot of eyes one’s work is very important. So, I can’t dismiss social media marketing. Because it gives everyone an equal chance with wider reach, engagement with poetry lovers, and hopefully increase book sales. Regarding some people making tons of money from poetry, yes there are poets who make a living from poetry. But some admit it’s other poetry-related activities, such as speaking engagements, performances, workshops, etc., that generate more income than book sales. Of course, there are always outliers.

    The Business of Rupi Kaur is interesting and even admirable. I found her response to an interview question on being a brand beyond her poetry equally interesting, “I don’t think about being the face of it, because I feel like I’ve always been. It wasn’t an intentional choice.” Here’s the link to read the entire interview, if you wish to read it. 🙂

    As for very few people in real life (non-poets/non-writers) who would go out and buy a poetry book…That’s so true. But we still write, because writing is breathing, at least for me. Thanks Rajani, I appreciate your input.

  9. I believe you are correct, there are some parallels. I guess it’s reasonable to say the creative life, no matter what we produce in the end (product or art) is fraught with challenges and risks but equally rewarding. There’s great wisdom in your line of thinking, “I love it when readers enjoy my work, but I would do it regardless.” I share the same sentiment. Let’s keep creating! And I sincerely appreciate you being open about your creative practice, Diana. Thank you so much for your input.

  10. True that, art in general is undervalued, under-appreciated, underfunded. Yet imagine a world without art! That’s usually my response to those who say art is under-appreciated because it’s not accessible or it’s a luxury. As for artists living on a higher plane of reality, I think artists have a right to be true to themselves, like everybody else. Many thanks Dawn, I appreciate your comment.

  11. A resounding yes! So much depends on achieving success in poetry and creative writing, in general. Your point on finding opportunities in other areas not necessarily poetry [or where poetry could be of use] is what I hope we explore, from time to time. Because I believe multiple streams of income affords us the opportunity to write or support our creative practices, and if we are “lucky pays the mortgage.

    Also true that what works for one might not work for the other, but we can still learn from each other by having these conversations. At least, these conversations help me know I’m not alone, when I find myself asking, “Why bother?”

    Thanks Kym, I appreciate your input. Regarding your book, I hope more people get to read it. There are just so many valuable lessons for both writers and readers. Wishing you a fantastic week, too!

    PS. I’m glad you also enjoyed the museum tour. 🙂

  12. Thanks JYP for your disclosure 🙂 I’m happy to hear that you find the questions I raise fascinating. I hope both questions and responses here will be useful, when/if you decide to earn money from your writing, one day. When it comes to a full-time job, for most of us a day job is what pays the mortgage. I appreciate you taking the time to join this conversation.

  13. Runeberg had (financial) patronage, and he deserved it! Yes there are those who went without it, but they continued to create regardless. But of course, we all have patrons. The very people who believe in our work, and the financial support comes from them buying our works. As Gordon Torr mentions in his book, Managing Creative People, “Every writer, artist, and creative genius has one, a special individual, or a cluster of colleagues or friends or supporters, who provide that special stimulus to great achievement. Sometimes we know their names…just as often we don’t.” This is a great reminder that what we seek, we probably have it already. It might just not put food on the table.

    Regarding the majority of writers not making a living from their work is widespread. But thank goodness for the impetus to keep creating. Because the world needs art. I’m glad you enjoyed this post Annika. Visiting museums is a joyful learning experience. I wish I could write more about my museum visits but I’m afraid I’ll end up having long posts and comments like these. 🙂 Many thanks for joining the conversation. Much appreciated!

  14. I’m happy you find the post fascinating, Mariss. Btw, your opinion is not humble but valid. Yes most poets go teach or work in creative industries. But there are some who are making money from poetry. There are so many things that go into play, though. And it is not always easy to pinpoint and they don’t offer a true and tested formula.

    Regarding reading/understanding of a poem or poetry, I’m going to say the education system (in most countries, even the one I live in) fails to promote appreciation for poetry. Because I want someone to blame. 🙂 But seriously, during my short stint in the Finnish classroom, I never heard of or witness a poetry class. Sure, literature is being taught but poetry is just not in the picture.

    As for dead poets and the work living on, that’s very noble. But I’d like to earn the rewards while I’m still alive. Is that possible! I appreciate your reading, Mariss. Thank you.

  15. I so love this thought-provoking post and the resources you link at the end after your question. For me, creativity is truly a lifestyle and a part of myself I must fulfill. I am studying creative writing and investing in that need. Perhaps I will never make back the cost of that investment monetarily, perhaps I will, but I do know it is worth it. 🙂

  16. Oh my goodness Khaya, where do I begin? First THANK YOU my dear friend for your insight, support, and encouragement. Support systems and collaborations within those systems is one of my “Each one – Reach one – Teach one examples.” The more we take a deep dive into alternative channels, I believe we can uncover some productive and lucrative opportunities.

    And my poetic princess, I hope you and your book will also reach those designated audiences who will appreciate your words and your truth. So, I raise my glass to you 🥂 (clink, clink) and say, “Let’s get this party started right!” Now, get ready for your wave of opportunity. ARE YOU READY??? 😍💖😘 Cheers to a FANtabulous week Khaya! 🙌🏼

  17. Such a thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Khaya.
    I don’t have an answer for how poetry as a primary occupation can make money.
    I write prose, and consider myself blessed that my partner has been my patron/benefactor, so I’m following in the tradition of many artists who are able to dedicate the time needed to their art because of a patron.
    I also recently visited a remarkable show of Canadian women’s art in the early 1900’s. Many, perhaps most, of these artists came from wealthy families AND therefore had an income of their own. Without that family wealth, we may never have seen their glorious creative talent on display. Made me think about women whose artistic talents never had a similar privilege.
    But I’m intrigued by your mention of ‘the business poet’ and ‘the teacher poet’ – other applications of poetry skills.
    I’ve often thought the best preachers are Black Americans whose speeches/sermons sound like poetry. Perhaps that’s why James Baldwin was such a brilliant writer (and public speaker) – he started out as a youth pastor. Indeed, some of the best novels I’ve read were written by poets. Poetry seems to be the underpinning of so much else.

  18. Thank you Cynthia for joining the conversation. It’s a blessing indeed to have a partner/spouse that is also benefactor of one’s art. It helps hugely in carving out time and space to create.

    It seems, in previous times, most artists came from wealthy families, who supported their artistic endeavours. Perhaps, that’s why art is sometimes seen as a luxury. It was created by those who could afford to create, and appreciated by those who could afford to buy. I have no doubt that there are many artists whose work will never know, mainly because of the opportunity factor. What a pity!

    Yes, I also regard the preachers you mention as poet preachers. For, if their sermons and speeches are not poetry, what is? The list of ‘poet/something or something/poet’ is long. 🙂 But seriously, as you’ve put it so well, poetry seems to be the underpinning of so much more. Perhaps, that’s its strength.

  19. Hi Layla! I’m super glad you found the links/resources useful. I can relate to creativity as being a lifestyle and a part of oneself to fulfill. We cannot put a price on that, can we! I hope your studies are providing you both fun and opportunity to create and express. write your stories, and share with the world. Thank you for reading.

    Btw, congrats on the publication of your poem and being part of Hidden In Childhood Anthology. Keep writing! 🙂

  20. It’s my pleasure, Kym! I support and believe in diving into “alternative” channels for drawing income from multi streams. But as a business poet yourself, you are already doing this. And your generous initiative “Each one – Reach one – Teach one” inspires me a great deal.

    In my family, I’m usually referred to as a queen (not poetic but in general), but I’ll take princess too. Thank you. LOL… 😀 <3 Have a wonderful midweek, my friend!

  21. Oh my goodness Khaya, a real QUEEN??? 👸🏻👑👸🏻 Well, look at you. I am not worthy! 🥰💖😘

    Girlfriend, I am still exploring lucrative channels throughout various marketing approaches in my toolkit. I’m putting it in practice, although I am still waiting on the lucrative part, the big payoff. But sistah, we have come too far to turn around or stop now. So keep your stilletos or sneakers polished! 👠👟👢 The journey is on my Queen girlfriend! 👑

  22. Oh Kym, you crack me up! 😀 😀 Just to be clear, I’m not a royal but a queen in my own life. I don’t know who said this “I am beautiful, courageous, valuable and perfect just the way I am—so sayeth the queen!” but it pretty much sums up how feel and think about myself most of the time…until self-doubt creeps in. 🙂

    Yep, the journey is on my friend. Let’s keep writing, and do our part to get readers excited about poetry again!

  23. I love your affirmations Khaya, so yes Queen, do royalty YOUR way! You don’t need the crown to have the title. So keep on keeping on my dear friend. 👸🏽 Guess what? Our best is yet to come! Stay focused, encouraged and empowered! 🤗💪🏼😍

  24. In my case, music does not pay the bills, but does put a dent in them, as well as helps maintain my sanity. That is worth a lot to me. 🙂 I have worked at many things in my life, mostly the Sciences – biological as well as engineering and computing – and I have been a slave to the 24 x 7 x 365 lifestyle. I left that life 20 years ago. Life has been far more precarious since then, but rewarding in so many other ways. And nothing one learns ever goes to waste.

  25. Our experiences (our art helping us maintain our insanity) are pretty much similar. With regard to being a “cubicle slave” I’ve been there too, I could write not-so glamorous books about those experiences… Yeah, I guess you could say life as an artist involves balancing the precarious and the rewards. Thank you so much Lavinia for contributing in this conversation. Much appreciated. Keep making your music, and dancing to it! 🙂

  26. You are not sceptical Mariss, you are a realist! Science proves that it’s better to be realistic than optimistic or pessimistic. Because “realistic thoughts lead you to better well-being and coping skills regardless of the outcome of a situation.” 🙂

  27. And let us not forget the many poetic lyrics from the songwriter poets.

    I struggle with this a lot. Art versus making a living. I wonder how my work would change if it was “for profit”. Right now, I write what’s in me and hope that people will buy it as a side effect. No one could ever live off my royalties. I always thought I wanted to be a career writer, but would it change when it was my job? Even when I love my job, I have a different relationship with it than my art. I don’t know that I would want the pressure of depending on it.

    Apparently, I have opposing desires for it 🙂

  28. I read someone’s email signature recently, in which she declares, “I don’t write to make a living, I write to serve, ” or something along those lines. I found the lines oddly comforting…but it is true that for many poets, despite their service to language and humanity, their poetry doesn’t pay the bills. In Tanzania, for example, some of our most prolific poets (e.g. Haji Gora) didn’t make much out their work, which is such a shame, considering the richness that is in their work. But of course, there are some poets who got by, and some became respected mainstream artists (e.g. Mrisho Mpoto). Ultimately, it boils down to what societies deems valuable. Even though poetry (and art) is priceless, are we willing to pay for it? Still, there are many poets who rise against the odds and enrich our lives with their words. Kudos to you and to all of them!

  29. Let’s not forget the songwriter poets, indeed! I’m lucky to have some I call friends.

    I think “Art versus making a living.” is a real struggle for some of us. Because, for instance, we write the stories that won’t let us rest. But there are writers who have managed to find the sweet spot by writing on topics they are passionate about and for profit, i.e. writing for the market. Hitting that spot is like a Sweet Spot training… 🙂 Perhaps, having a different/day job to support one’s art, when not creating for the market is one best ways to take the pressure of.

    Thank you so much, Christina. I appreciate you contributing to this conversation.

  30. I love, love that email signature. It’s not only comforting but powerful. Serving others is most rewarding emotionally. But yes serving won’t always pay the bills. You raise another important point, the many African poets and whose work/contribution to the art world remains unknown. A real shame, indeed. And I’m ashamed to admit, as an African, that I’m not familiar with Haji Gora’s work. 🙁 But thanks to social media, the likes of Mpoto are visible and we can enjoy their works.

    As for societies and what they deem of value, there’s so much to be said about that. It ties up with that opportunity point I mentioned; a complex topic on its own. And kudos to you, too. As you know where we are based, the poetry landscape for poets who write in English is as difficult to pinpoint like snow in Africa. 🙂 But we keep writing.

    “Even though poetry (and art) is priceless, are we willing to pay for it?” That is the crux of the argument!

    Thank you so much Neema for your visit, and contributing to this conversation. I appreciate it. Please visit often!

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