Prose from Poetry Magazine

Why Live Without Writing

Unpopular answers to poetry questions.

by Durs Grünbein
Durs Grunbein: Why Live Without Writing.Photo: Renate Brandt

Questions are remarks
—Wallace Stevens

There are three questions that a poet is always asked once he’s become reasonably well established, i.e., isn’t forever required to spell his name, and his CV is reduced to two or three worn phrases. Never mind the fact that these phrases come out of the platitudinous files of some press department. What matters is that he showed sufficient stamina in the pursuit of his solitary discipline, which might suggest pole vaulting and dashing sprints, but probably has most in common with the monotony of the marathon runner. Whichever, one day finds him standing under the open sky with a few curiosity seekers in front of him. The air is thick with old ideas, fantasies about the poet’s life unchanged since Homer’s day. I’ll bet you anything: they come out in the form of the same three questions. At the end of the reading, there’s not even any hesitation or throat clearing. It’s as if the questions were always there, a kind of diffuse curiosity, a residue of admiration tinged with skepticism and a little bumptiousness.

“Can you really live off it?” is the first of them. It’s always the one to start the dance, and it seems to be the one that’s of greatest interest in a society governed by getting and spending. Money sets standards and settles issues. It’s money that measures the worth of each individual, whoever or whatever he or she may be: a pole dancer at a nightclub, an auto mechanic, a seasonal laborer in the asparagus field, a military spy hollowing out an enemy dictatorship, or—out of whatever frivolity of youth or deformation of personality—a poet. Can you live off it? It’s the quest for a common denominator, the slightly sneering imputation of a low motive that even the poet-fantasist daren’t go too far away from without risking a stumble. Whoever holds forth unpaid is like someone preaching on one leg: he won’t be doing it for long. The question is a conscious and malicious comment on that flamingo or ostrich position. Live off it is a way of saying: these fruitless verbal stunts, prestidigitations, aptitudes must surely lack in market value what they claim to have in terms of significance. To sensitive poets’ ears it will sound like a threat, a tactless reminder of a bad habit, a warning against something that will surely end up as parasitism, in the warm bath of a state-endowed hostel.

Usually the matter is quickly resolved by a reference to the fee for the just-over reading (which the poet will certainly declare to the tax authorities). The fact that such an obvious connection doesn’t occur to most people is due to the public subvention of literature. It is rare for people to have to pay for the privilege of hearing their bird of paradise (and asking him such and other questions). Few would stump up, if required. Free admission to the bard is considered a right. The same art lover who would pay hundreds of dollars for a seat in the stalls to hear some pampered tenore, makes the silent assumption that the recessive librettist, the wordsmith with the light voice and the fluttering gestures, if he insists for some reason on appearing in person, will do it for free. The question about earning a living is half accusation, half condescension, because the party questioned inevitably strikes them as a poor fellow on day release from his cell in solitary, sitting there quietly reading out his difficult messages, a little nervous, as though there were armed guards on either side of him, rarely straightforward. His material is as encoded as the secret messages passed from hand to hand in prison, those crumpled scraps of paper that look as though their conveyor had smuggled them in under his tongue. The spittle that issues from the reader’s mouth is a grim little echo of those sticky scraps—but not as much as the poems themselves, these minimal jerky missives, these coded appeals in a secret language. Do I have to accept this and pass it on, the skeptical listener asks himself, what’s it for? First I want to know if it’s even possible to live off these messages from longtime solitary confinement. Basil Bunting, angry English member of the circle of the equally angry Ezra Pound, offers a portrait of the skeptic in his poem-monologue, “What the Chairman Told Tom”:

Poetry? It’s a hobby.
I run model trains.
Mr Shaw there breeds pigeons.

It’s not work. You dont sweat.
Nobody pays for it.
You could advertise soap.

Art, that’s opera; or repertory—
The Desert Song.
Nancy was in the chorus.

But to ask for twelve pounds a week—
married, aren’t you?—
you’ve got a nerve.

How could I look a bus conductor
in the face
if I paid you twelve pounds?

Who says it’s poetry, anyhow?
My ten year old
can do it and rhyme.

I get three thousand and expenses,
a car, vouchers,
but I’m an accountant.

They do what I tell them,
my company.
What do you do?

Nasty little words, nasty long words,
it’s unhealthy.
I want to wash when I meet a poet.

They’re Reds, addicts,
all delinquents.
What you write is rot.

Mr Hines says so, and he’s a schoolteacher,
he ought to know.
Go and find work.

If you think this scene from 1965 is a little dated—though I wouldn’t know why—then you only have to substitute the many prejudices that lurk inside you about so-called modern poetry. Incomprehensible, hermetic, elitist, socially redundant, indulgent, cerebral, etc. And contrast that with the refreshingly blunt tone of the chairman in Bunting’s poem, which, strangely enough, comes out of a collection called “Odes.” The poet himself evidently thought it sufficiently expressive to be included in one of his rare bibliophile editions, flanked by arid dense nature poems, bone-dry histories of the rim of Europe. It seems to be a problem of poetry, before all formal questions: its right to appear at all before the serious world of work. A profession is the spine of life, says Nietzsche. By that token, a poet would be an endangered species, condemned to live without a spine. Maybe that’s why he so often has recourse to alibis. When questioned, he refers to his other occupations. He talks about his day job as editor and translator, mutters something about articles in prominent weeklies, deflects attention to his work in prose and his production of reviews, which in his own eyes too brings him closer to the generality. He wants to show that he is concerned with principles, with his own speculative contribution to what contemporary philosophy calls the logic of the senses. He too is concerned with a methodology of contemplation (and not just sunsets and stamens). He promises that he is about more than merely chance self-expression, that he is exploring the basics. Casually he brings in his Ariel-like agility, his Hermes-deft understanding of the sciences. If he’s going well, he alludes to the unique possibilities inherent in his eccentric situation. Then, having politely stepped aside, he brings in the poet in general, the finely honed senses the species has had for pioneer work in many fields, long before psycholinguistics or art philosophy occupied their own terrain, and long since, too. Because it’s still not settled, he says, finally, who is taking advantage of whom. Phenomenology and dialectical thought, journalism and advertising, the mushrooming proliferation of writing up to and including the very latest self-help manual, they have all nibbled on the oatcakes of poetry. They have received a gift that came to its creators, if they’re going to be honest about it, as a gift in turn—a gift, according to the ancient Greeks, from the Muses. And so he asks, with for once barely a trace of irony, that all questions of duty and ownership be set aside. A little calmer now, he goes on to talk about the privilege conferred by writing—the privilege of using his gift of observation and his verbal finesse to make explicit statements on being human, to make notes on the real world and translate it, at one and the same time, into metaphysics. Perhaps it will even occur to him to portray writing as a specific form of understanding, or, following an original notion of Novalis, as progressive anthropology. Once in train, he will insist that poetry is the most paradoxical and complex form of contemplation, and thereby the most valuable contribution to a natural history of thinking and sensation. If he finally succeeds in elevating this to a proof of existence, exalted over every bank statement and of almost inestimable cultural value, then, more exhausted than convinced, they may finally leave him alone. But right away, bet you anything you like, will come the second question, the starting signal for an expedition into the biographical hinterland: “How long have you been writing?”

Copright © 2010 by Durs Grünbein. Translation copyright © 2010 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Originally Published: February 1, 2010

Translated by Michael Hofmann



On February 2, 2010 at 1:46pm Dina Coe wrote:
Enjoyed this image of the poet as
"uninvited guest" of the society; I've
heard those condescending questions.
Especially liked cummings' rejoinder, to
which I might add, "I write in order not to
be like you."

On February 3, 2010 at 6:27pm Bean wrote:
Thank you, thank you for continuing to breathe life into what is poetry--

So thoughtfully written and translated. This is as much mouth to mouth resuscitation: to a poet and poetry.

On February 3, 2010 at 11:47pm Geneva Lorrain wrote:
I am a poet, but no one will ask me questions about my poems or why I write them. IF they did, I would answer: because I cannot not write. I think if someone did ask, I would be happy to answer because many people view the writing process as very mysterious. I don't think I would view my readers with disdain and think it all such a bother as this poet does unless they hate my poems. Then I would cry a whole lot. This poet cries a whole lot because his readers love his poems. There is no pleasing some people.

On February 4, 2010 at 1:09pm Geneva Lorrain wrote:
Bean, sometimes the "mouth to mouth resuscitation" must come from the poet alone because the reading public does not understand the work of a writer/poet as the public did D.H.Lawrence. This was his response to the public:

You tell me I am wrong.
Who are you, who is anybody to tell me I am wrong?
I am not wrong.

from "Pomegranate"

P.S. He was not wrong.

On February 6, 2010 at 9:36am Sally Chappell wrote:
Poetry enlivens prose, but prose deadens poetry. Great novelists --Melville, Hardy, Nabokov--to name but three, were also poets. Gruenbein's tropes, e.g., "nibbled on the oatcakes of poetry." make his essay sparkle. Why is this a one way street? I go now (before I sleep) to read his poetry.

On February 6, 2010 at 11:51pm Xuan Ba Nguyen wrote:
Even an engineer by trade, I have heard of
those oatcakes and am thankful that they
exist. So to all the poets, if you know the
morsels you let go add such flavors to this
otherwise bland existence, you will write

On February 10, 2010 at 7:04pm Bill s wrote:
It is because poetry has always been
relegated to the 'odd and different'
category that these questions are asked.
People are uncomfortable listening to
poetry being read by the poet. It's as
natural as a child's first confession.
Poetry is like masturbation; it's just not
talked about in most homes.

On February 18, 2010 at 6:57pm Robert Cullen wrote:
Answer to the follow-up question: Since first I tramped with vagrant tramps the dim-lit corridors your heroes feared . . . better to offer poetic response to the point of lunacy. Every now and then, midst a fluff of eyebrows, a curiosity will raise.

On February 20, 2010 at 3:22pm Albert B. Casuga wrote:
Decapitated, Orpheus sings still of those "ardent days, and weary ways" (James Joyce) --- his quartering shall have no dominion. Like Orpheus' head nailed on his lyre, poets write, sing, rap, and audiences be damned. They will re-order their myriad takes of reality until reality itself becomes palpable. The poet is involved in an art that fulfills man's first occupation (paid or unpaid): naming things so that reality as reality may be better recognized by his benificiaries. Alas, very few of them exist.

On March 19, 2010 at 5:45pm ed fisher wrote:
Being new to 'writing" and unpublished I must say I don't know where it comes from , I may need help and just dont know it yet , but my shoe box is getting full. I write and I can't stop....

On March 19, 2010 at 7:49pm Anna S. wrote:
Though uneducated on even most comoonly known poems, if one writes to be different sadly someone tends to try and copy their style. Most poems have different views depending on how the reader interperets the poem. Writing to me is telling all who will listen my thoughts and ideas. I strive to rise higher and write better each day. I still find it amazing that you can find a fragment of yourself in most poems if you think about it. Maybe we aren't so different from everyone else after all. If this is considered babbling about nothing then ignore it. These are my opinions, so how can they be wrong as was pointed out. Thank you for making me ponder these things.

On March 31, 2010 at 3:04pm Sarah Chanaa' Eden wrote:
Poetry is whatever the poet put into them. There are some poems that have been written that I read in high school and before high school. Today, sometime when I am in a tough situation I read "If" and others.

On April 16, 2010 at 7:53pm Renzo Bruni wrote:
Examining my life, listening to my voice, and sometimes just to find out what is in my head that I couldn't figure out because sometimes, actually quite commonly, the "stuff" that comes out of my head (onto the keyboard) is news to me, not that I didn't "know" it, but that I didn't know that I knew it that well, or had forgotten that it was all related to what I started writing about.

On June 5, 2010 at 3:44pm david Scher wrote:
A cell or two in a petri dish is audience

On August 6, 2012 at 5:35pm Louise from the island of Australia wrote:
Durs is an old friend of mine, and I have been trying to contact him for years - can anybody help?
And, as for writing, well, we write because we must. The balance between audience and truth is an ongoing conundrum. Write because you must.

POST A COMMENT welcomes comments that foster dialogue and cultivate an open community on the site. Comments on articles must be approved by the site moderators before they appear on the site. By submitting a comment, you give the Poetry Foundation the right to publish it. Please note: We require comments to include a name and e-mail address. Read more about our privacy policy.


This prose originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of Poetry magazine

February 2010


 Durs  Grünbein


A poet of reunified Germany, Durs Grünbein was born in Dresden, lives with his family in eastern Berlin, and works in a room he rents in western Berlin. He has published numerous collections of poetry and essays in German, and has translated a variety of authors, including John Ashbery, Samuel Beckett, Henri Michaux, and the classic texts Aeschylus’s The Persians and Seneca’s Thyestes.  Grünbein’s poetry is witty, wry, . . .

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.