“No man but a blockhead,” Samuel Johnson famously observed, “ever wrote, except for money.” This is tough news for poets, since the writing they do is often less immediately profitable than a second-grader’s math homework (the kid gets a cookie or a hug; the poet gets a rejection letter from The Kenyon Review). Poetry itself is tremendously valuable, of course, but that value is often realized many years after a poem’s composition, and sometimes long after the end of its author’s life.
In the meantime, everyone has to eat. So unless you win the lottery, being a poet means finding a job that can support the writing of poems. Over the past few decades, that job has overwhelmingly involved teaching in university departments of English and/or creative writing. In , for instance, almost all of the 75 contributors have taught poetry in universities or earned an advanced degree in poetry, or (more frequently) both.
But the university job is a relatively recent development in Anglo-American poetry. spent eight years in a bank and decades in publishing. was a lawyer and insurance executive. was a doctor. worked in a university library, and ran the Library of Congress. was, improbably enough, a postal clerk.
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