Raking up gold dust off the floor
"I have never done any teaching. I don't think I know enough about anything to do any teaching. I've done all sorts of odd jobs. My weirdest was raking up gold dust off the floor when I was messenger in a gold place on 47th Street. We had to do it with a broom like in Grimm's fairy tales, and sort the gold dust out of the ordinary dirt. I only lasted there about three weeks. Then I did things like being a waitress, and odd jobs all the time."
Helen Adam, quoted above (in the Helen Adam Reader), explained in an interview that she never had a job doing anything remotely connected to literature. I bring this up partly as an adjunct to Linh Dinh's recent post here on $$$, but also because I was reminded of this in reading Eavan Boland's notebook piece in the May 2008 issue of Poetry. She remarks:
"Whether we like it or not, the contemporary poet is increasingly skill-based. Or expected to be. He or she can — or should — lecture, lead a workshop, run an introductory class, teach composition, write a review, give a conference paper. In pursuit of all this, they are also expected to travel neatly, punctually, and soberly.... I want to be clear here. These are not negligible skills for the poet in the world. I certainly wanted to acquire them when I was young. All of them seemed to me a way of talking about or living with poetry. They still do. And I still believe many if not most poets engage them for exactly that reason.
Nevertheless, I’m nagged at by the thought that many of the poets I admired when I was young were not skill-based. The opposite in fact. To think of Patrick Kavanagh or Charlotte Mew leading workshops or flying to a strange city to give a reading is to stumble straight into anomaly.
And yet skills are an integral part of the poet’s world — and prospects — today...
There has been a gradual, perhaps calcifying professionalism which requires of a poet a standard of behavior and communality which poets were once exempted from. I was never uncritical of that exemption. But now, somehow, I wish I saw more of it. "
As she points out, "there have always been quirks and absurdities about the poet’s fit in the world." Every time a poet wins a large prize (oh, for example, Gary Snyder's receiving the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize), the question of what a life's work is - literally - worth naturally arises.
Well, Boland happens to retell a nice tale about poets and money and employment recorded in an essay on T.S. Eliot by I.A. Richards, who
"...cannot resist retailing his conversation with a bank supervisor he met on holiday in Switzerland who worked at that time in Henrietta Street. A fellow employee was the young Eliot who was then a diligent, if misplaced, bank official.
Mr. W., the bank supervisor — as he is described in the anecdote — is neither imaginative nor aware of his coworker’s prospects. In fact, at one point he asks Richards if he thinks his young colleague is a good poet. Richards says, well, yes he is. Then Mr. W. responds:
You know, I myself am really very glad indeed to hear you say that. Many of my colleagues wouldn’t agree at all. They think a Banker has no business whatever to be a poet. They don’t think the two things can combine. But I believe that anything a man does, whatever his hobby may be, it’s all the better if he is really keen on it and does it well. I think it helps him with his work. If you see our young friend, you might tell him that we think he’s doing quite well at the Bank. In fact, if he goes on as he has been doing, I don’t see why — in time, of course, in time — he mightn’t even become a Branch Manager."
Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...