Clearly money has something to do with life.--Philip Larkin, "Money"
Money is a most useful metaphor, enhancing poems as well as paying the rent. For some reason, money seems to have evolved into my theme for National Poetry Month 2010. I'm not sure how this happened. Perhaps I was influenced by Katy Lederer's The Heaven-Sent Leaf, one of several collections I bought recently to celebrate Poetry Month. Reading selected pages while in the bookstore had sold me on the book, but only later did I learn from her bio that she had "worked for many years for a hedge fund." You don't need that bio, however, to see the weaving of money and verse in poems like "A Nietzschean Revival":
When the money and its happy apparatus do call and lure,
Do call and lure...
These poets speak of capital as if they had the least idea.
I ask you: what do poets know of capital?
Across this harp, their fingers play a Nietzschean revival.
I envy them their will to power.
I mentioned recently that I'm not a poet, but I am a reader of poetry (and buyer of poetry collections, which is a truly endangered lit-species). I'm a writer, so I think about words all the time, but I'm also deeply intrigued by and engaged in the book trade, so I think about money, too.
I know many poets. I consider that a privilege. When our conversations turn to the publishing industry, however, a certain fatalistic refrain inevitably creeps in: "No money in poetry; never was, never will be," they will say, or, "I write poetry, therefore I teach."
I know, I know. It's not just about the money, whether you're a poet, a bookseller, a small press editor or any other toiler in the word fields. It is, however, a little bit about the money. For example, have you ever met anyone in the book world who didn't say, at some point, "I could have made more money doing (fill in the occupation), but I had to do this"?
Poets know more than most of us about that vocational monkey wrench tossed into the earning-a-living machine. David Budbill considered the challenge in "After Reading Meng Chiao's 'Seeing Off Master T'an' ":
I wish I could be like Master T'an and go from place to place
begging for someone to pay my
health-insurance premiums, property taxes, and car-repair bills,
but I can't. I have to keep pretending there is nothing wrong.
I know that since ancient times
poets have never gotten fat.
There are small, practical solutions. I heard about one at the AWP Conference and Bookfair in Denver, Colo., recently, where Todd Boss spoke of poetry and money in the same breath and the walls did not crumble around us, nor did the gods rise up in fury and smite him.
I found it refreshing. He said that his website features a call for commissions: "By working for hire, and by putting a price tag on your work, you create a new market for your poems--a market based on emotional necessity, urgency, and deep personal commitment. This is a vital, and artistically rewarding way to give the world the poetry it craves."
Boss also wrote about commission work in a Squad365 blog post this week, observing: "Each commission expands, in profoundly personal ways, my influence as an artist, and results in compelling word-of-mouth among people whom I wouldn’t otherwise reach. And the artistic risk and rivet of it--creating a work of art that speaks to another person’s deepest desires for art’s healing questions--makes for the greatest benefit of all."
In Henry's Fate, John Berryman considered the money dilemma:
By making enough.
Not much, enough.
His bills in Hell will be easy to pay,
No laundry there,
No long-distance telephone.
And Charles Bukowski grumbled about it in "so you want to be a writer?":
don't do it.
Except for the Bukowski, these selections are all from books that live in my house even when it isn't National Poetry Month. Maybe they know something about poets and money that I don't. Maybe not. I'll just have to keep reading, and buying, poetry books to find out. At least some poets will make a little money.
--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1170.