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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!