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Prose from Poetry Magazine

Sing for the Taxman

Revenue and exemptions in the life of a poet.

Why do we go on thinking that poetry and fiction require different temperaments? The answer probably has something to do with recent literary history.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young man without a fortune must be in want of a job. It was certainly true of my own experience. And another truism—the one about the universality of death and taxes—soon acquired a special, indeed literal, significance for me. Death, after all, was what would earn me my living; death in the form of taxes, actually: death duties and inheritance taxes. In 1970, aged sixteen and having just completed my secondary schooling, I was relieved to be offered a job by Ireland’s Revenue Commissioners, our internal revenue and customs service: a “permanent, pensionable position,” no less, “subject to satisfactory probation.” I have toiled in Revenue—as the organization is generally termed—ever since; for more than thirty years as a full-time employee (specializing successively in death duties, stamp duties, and customs) and latterly—with a favorable Lannan breeze to my back—on a part-time basis (as editor of Tax Briefing, a journal which provides accountants, lawyers, and tax advisers with technical information and interpretative guidelines on complex tax legislation).

“If you ever leave your job, you will stop writing.” An office colleague-turned-soothsayer relayed this stark prediction to me last year. Most poets, however, seem convinced that they would never begin writing if they were to spend a lifetime in one of the busiest (not to mention least loved) branches of public administration, one attracting more critics than The Waste Land. Our creative habits are as mysterious to each other as our domestic habits. So, as someone who has neither taken nor given a single poetry workshop or creative writing class, it is natural for me to ask—“not in sorrow, but in contemplation,” to borrow the great Milosz’s phrase—how I would survive if my pay, prospects, pension, and tenure were to depend, irrespective of the vagaries of a fickle muse, on my being able not only to prove my poethood through regular publications, but also to act as a kind of creative sat-nav, plotting my students’ routes toward expressive fulfillment.

Yet, a creative writing professorship is the career choice of so many admirable American poets that any fears I might harbor about extraneous pressures on their creative spontaneity may well be misguided, impertinent, or naive. In the end, all poets—within the academy and without—face the same task: to “follow the prompts,” as the corporate voicemails urge, and satisfactorily shape the amorphous sounds, rhythms, images, or phrases by which the first stirrings of a potential poem are recognized, and which arrive unbidden like internal voicemails or text messages. In rare cases, the finished poem—having survived an initial probation period—may even prove “permanent and pensionable.”

*     *     *

I had spent thirty-eight years in Revenue before my poetry and my official duties drew unexpectedly together for the first time. Early in 2008 I was asked—invited, not instructed; commissioned, not commanded—to write a poem to mark the opening of the Revenue Museum in Dublin Castle, site of the Revenue Commissioners’ HQ (where my standard-issue desk hunkers in a draughty, high-ceilinged, red-bricked Georgian wing). Even Revenue is better loved by the twenty-first-century Irish natives than were the English colonists who ruled from Dublin Castle in earlier centuries; yet I cannot imagine a visit to a revenue museum acquiring must-see status for many locals, who probably fear a menacing rather than relaxing experience, a reminder of life’s adversities rather than a diversion from them.

The museum’s clientele is far likelier to be drawn from tourists—Ireland for Dummies clutched in hand, Nikon strapped on shoulder—who are attracted to Dublin Castle by the guided tours of the state apartments. In the pre-digital days, when the doctoring of photographs was not much essayed outside of the Kremlin, I must have played walk-on parts in hundreds of photograph albums, from Anchorage to KwaZulu-Natal, having been accidentally snapped in various guises by visitors seeking a Dublin Castle panorama: as an unwitting photo-wrecker, lugging files to a Finance Ministry briefing; as a cropped suit-sleeve, bearing photocopied documents for a Eurocustoms board meeting; or as a mere anemic blur, an ectoplasmic mist, hastening to catch my commuter bus at the end of a working day.

Had I been asked to write a poem on Dublin Castle and its long history—about which my knowledge is not so much elementary as fragmentary, accumulated in piecemeal fashion from overhearing tour guides—I might have found the challenge manageable. But a poem for a revenue museum, a place which was little more than an architect’s sketch at the time of writing (or drafting, doodling, daydreaming, despairing—which was how my deliberations began), seemed a mission which defied accomplishment. Besides, I have never felt entirely at ease with commissions for poems. I am far too superstitiously wedded to the notion that inspiration is the sine qua non, the non-negotiable prelude to writing a poem—as essential as cider to applejack or whiskey to Irish coffee. Conscripted poems are the first to die.

Despite my regular poetry profit warnings to the museum committee, my mumblings about the extreme unlikelihood of my hammering out stanzas for the grand opening and plaque unveiling, I did eventually deliver “At the Revenue Museum.” This poem was smuggled into existence (though “smuggled” may not be the mot juste for lines celebrating the customs service) in the hold of an office sequence, on which I was already at work. As a stowaway, it eluded my inspiration police whose 24/7 patrols would normally have repulsed it abruptly at the borders of consciousness for lacking the proper credentials. The poem, initially printed in the program for the opening ceremony, now hangs among the exhibits (ledger and hydrometer, tax-calculating machine and drugs lavatory) at the beautifully laid out museum in an elegantly austere limewash-and-limestone crypt of Dublin Castle.

Poetry is a high-visibility art in Ireland; in our rapidly-secularized society, it has become a kind of ersatz religion, supplying the elevated ceremonial language without the divisive doctrines; the confession without the penance; the absolution without the contrition. At any rate, the senior civil servants and ceos of state enterprises who attended the Revenue Museum inauguration listened attentively as I opened the proceedings by reading the commissioned poem. In the not-too-distant Irish past, my place at the ceremony would have been occupied by an aspergillum-swinging bishop consecrating the building with a splash of holy water from a brass ewer. After my brief turn, the Minister for Finance, Brian Cowen (elevated since then to the prime ministership of Ireland), prefaced his address to the gathering with the remark, “I’ve been put at a terrible disadvantage here—a politician following a poet; eloquence followed by elongation.”

*     *     *

When selecting snappy pronouncements for my recent book of contemporary quotations about poetry, Quote Poet Unquote, I was bemused by the number of non-Irish poets who managed to subtly imply that the tax official is a bottom feeder, the second lowest form of life—and that the lowest ranking would be inevitable if an even worse stigma did not attach to the poet. In the words of Douglas Dunn, “If someone on a train asked me what I did for a living, I’d say I was a tax-inspector, rather than a poet.” His fellow Scotsman, Don Paterson, concurs: “I’m still embarrassed to say I’m a poet. I say I’m a writer and sometimes I say I work for the Inland Revenue, which kills the conversation. To say you’re a poet is even worse.” Charles Simic claims that “parents still prefer their children to be taxidermists and tax collectors rather than poets.”

In Ireland, not only are poets accorded appreciable status and respect—enough at least to elevate them safely above rock bottom—but tax collectors have been their unacknowledged allies, especially between 2003 and 2008 when government funding for the Arts Council in the Irish Republic (population: 4.3 million) doubled. The 2008 peak of €85 million (roughly $110 million at the early 2009 exchange rate) is unlikely to be scaled again until the economic climate improves and tax revenues recover their former buoyancy. Meantime, the council’s allocation for 2009 has been reduced to 76 million.

In a cunning linguistic shift, the Arts Council, appealing for increased subvention from government, has learned to couch its case in business idiom, rather than resort to the language of ethics, aesthetics, or pedagogy, let alone transcendence. The director of the council, Mary Cloake, has described the arts as a “high-quality, good-value product” and arts funding as “an investment, a really smart investment, by the Government, of the taxpayers’ money,” asserting that “the presence of [music and theatre] organizations in our cities is...considered a key indicator of a mature and attractive knowledge-based economy. It plays a crucial role in attracting inward investment by global corporations.” By contrast, Eamon de Valera, Irish prime minister when the first Arts Council was established in 1951, made a distinctly un-business case to its members: “The pressure of material forces upon our modern life has taken away from it, I fear, in many respects, the primacy once held by things of the spirit. Your task is to endeavor to restore that primacy.”

Thanks to subsidies from the Arts Council (and occasionally also from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland), the Irish Republic’s poetry publishers—a vital, dedicated, idealistic community—have been able to survive without struggling to attract financial donors as well as book buyers. The very different environment in which American non-profit publishers operate was conveyed last year by Chase Twichell, who recalled having had to “schmooze rich people” and “raise money year-round” to keep her Ausable Press (now part of Copper Canyon Press) afloat. Poets in Ireland may apply for travel grants and the success rate is high; they are also eligible to compete for the semiannual “bursaries” awarded to writers who intend to set aside time for particular projects. Above all, though, whatever goodwill should flow—or trickle, at least—from artist to tax official ought to emanate most fervently from members of Aosdána, the Irish academy of artists established in 1983.

Formerly comprised of writers, visual artists, and composers, Aosdána now admits architects and choreographers to its ranks. A maximum membership of two hundred and fifty is permitted; approximately fifty—from founder-members, born in the twenties (John Montague, Richard Murphy, Leland Bardwell, Anthony Cronin), to newcomers, born in the sixties (Peter Sirr, Pat Boran)—are principally known for their poetry. What is unusual about this academy is that, subject to certain eligibility requirements, it provides members with a not-inconsiderable income that widens their options, allowing them the basis for escape from the garret, the conference call, and the seminar room. In May 2008, even as Ireland—in common with the rest of the western world—was beginning to register a serious economic nosedive, the Arts Council announced that the Aosdána tax-free annuity for qualifying members would incrementally increase by two-thirds to 20,000 ($26,000) between 2008 and 2011. Those eligible to benefit—and more than half of the current membership are annuitants—may additionally earn, from royalties or other sources, up to one and a half times the value of the annuity.

Writers who are not members of Aosdána, and indeed who are not artists in any sense in which I understand the term, can still enjoy a measure of subsidy—Ireland’s version, perhaps, of that democratic but deluded postmodern fantasy whereby everybody is deemed an artist. A longstanding “artists’ exemption” from income tax on royalty earnings was first introduced in 1969 by the notorious politician Charles Haughey. Initially intended to support artistic practitioners—painters, composers, poets, and so on—its scope has grown immeasurably over the years, as a result of legal challenges, appeal cases, and revised operational guidelines. Work “generally recognized as having cultural or artistic merit” is eligible; a ghostwritten memoir, a millionaire’s rags-to-riches story, a biography of Frank Sinatra, and a priest’s history of his diocese have recently been granted the royalty relief, as of course have countless novels and collections of poetry.

Unlike the music group u2, who (citing “tax efficiency”) moved part of their financial operations abroad as a result, few poets will have been overly distressed by Minister Cowen’s introduction in 2007 of a “cap” of €250,000 ($320,000) on the annual amount of artists’ income which is exempt from Irish income tax. The Sunday Independent newspaper commented, “Although the tax exemption...was originally intended to aid struggling artists, international stars such as U2, Enya, and the Corrs have benefited significantly from the attractive tax breaks on their songwriting and royalty earnings.” One wonders whether U2’s Bono, ever ready to pontificate about the need for Western governments to donate more development aid to poorer countries, actually realizes how the aid from donor governments is funded.

*     *     *

However much poetry may be respected in Ireland, this respect more often translates, in practice, into tolerance and acceptance rather than enthusiasm and support: poetry is a “nice” thing to live near, as long as it does not come too close. The verse quotient of Leopold Bloom’s bookshelf at 7 Eccles Street—a gold-tooled edition of Shakespeare’s Works and two poetry volumes (one secondhand, the other with a bookmark marooned at page five)—may still be representative of Irish households. An Arts Council survey of 1,210 people in 2006, when compared with a similar study in 1994, revealed a decline (from 7% to 5%) in the number of people who bought poetry books “for pleasure”; a mere 4% of the 2006 group owned up to having actively listened to, or watched, a literary broadcast or recording (i.e. any poetry or prose reading accessed electronically) in the previous year. Only once, in a lifetime of commuting by public transport, have I chanced upon a poetry reader (for the record, my fellow passenger’s book was Richard Murphy’s Selected Poems).

Over twenty years ago, the Australian poet Vincent Buckley wrote: “The visitor gets a general impression that the Irish have a weakness for poetry; and it may be true; equally, it may be that we are confusing it with a love of song. Some bookshops have shown great loyalty to Irish poetry, but at the cost of almost total lack of interest in poetry from anywhere else, even the fabled America.” Whatever edge Irish poetry enjoys in bookstores is attributable not only to local loyalties but also to the manageably intimate scale on which it operates. In a year in which many hundreds of new collections by American poets might be published, scarcely more than thirty individual collections will be added to the gross national poetry product in Ireland (north and south). Whether in the call of duty or for casual enjoyment, therefore, a leisurely read through all of these glossy new volumes could easily be undertaken, with ample scope still left for sampling books from other countries, cultures, and eras. Or, to put it another way, the human scale of the poetry “scene” in Ireland permits the critic, the anthologist, and the committed reader to make meaningful judgments and pronouncements about contemporary Irish poetry and to continue to confer relevance on the endangered but crucial notion of a “test of time.”

But supposing the native language into which you shape your thoughts is itself endangered? At the Ovidius Festival in Romania last summer, during a seminar on the “future of literature,” I heard the Gaelic language poet, translator, and haikuist Gabriel Rosenstock identify a matter of more immediate concern than the fanciful “death of the book”: the death of the very tongue to which he and other talented poets remain passionately committed, however minuscule their audience and however galling it must be that bilingual editions of their poetry (where readerly eyes are more likely to light on the English translation than on the Gaelic original) are becoming the norm.

Tax revenues were lavished, over the years, on efforts to promote and preserve the Gaelic language by subsidizing books and broadcasts, encouraging cultural and educational initiatives, and funding industrial projects to boost the economic sustainability of the ever-shrinking Gaelic-speaking pockets which remain. Yet few Irish people are fluent in the Gaelic language, being for the most part indifferent if not downright contemptuous toward it. Engraved in Ireland’s constitution is the asseveration that Gaelic—“as the national language”—is our “first official language”; but a dissenting judgment is delivered daily on Dublin’s newly-multicultural streets, where African, Asian, and East European languages are the ones heard amid the international blog-speak of the Anglophone majority.

Incidentally, one of the more inspired ideas for stimulating interest in the language—the mischievous proposal, made at a time when official censorship was at its most repressive and philistine, that banned books in English should be translated into Gaelic—came to nothing.

*     *     *

Roland Barthes observed that writers do not take holidays. Even if ostensibly on vacation, they continue in one way or another to work: taking note, making notes, checking proofs, dabbling in research, reading toward an essay or lecture; always “on,” they are permanently on duty, on call, on high alert, refusing to desert their posts. If writers never really take a vacation, neither are they always willing to relinquish their day jobs (T.S. Eliot in publishing, Wallace Stevens in insurance), long after economic necessity can have been the deciding factor. The rhythms of poetry and the routines of work are interdependent for some poets; the discipline and the distraction of the workplace leave the unsupervised unconscious home alone, free to range and roam at its own pace, select its own society, intensity, and pitch.

In the end, however, it is as impossible to fully comprehend the poetry policies of the insurance office writer as it is to draw definitive lessons from the career of the teaching poet. At any rate, Wallace Stevens (who, in his own words, “never believed that it took a great deal to be both a poet and something else”) refused to surrender his job for a Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company pension. In a letter—written from his office—to Archibald MacLeish, declining the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard for 195556, the seventy-five-year-old poet stated, “The Hartford has a rule that fixes mandatory retirement at seventy. Although I am well beyond that age, I believe that I can keep on here as long as I want. To take the greater part of a year, however, for something else would be only too likely to precipitate the retirement that I want so much to put off.” Perhaps the lonely prospect of isolated and unstructured Hartford days, staring out the green-shuttered windows of his clapboard mansion on Westerly Terrace, unnerved him. Or maybe, as he said of Alfred A. Knopf’s plans for a Collected Poems, “I have held off . . . for a number of years because, in a way, it puts an end to things.”

Of T.S. Eliot, his biographer Peter Ackroyd notes: “Even in the years of his greatest fame, he continued with the routine business of publishing. For a man who found it difficult to write for more than three hours a day it was one way of passing time but, more importantly, as he explained in an address in 1951, it was necessary for him to hold a job which other people considered useful; he had so little confidence in his own work that he did not want to risk wasting all of his time upon it.” Randall Jarrell, who died before retirement age, was job satisfaction personified: “I’m crazy about teaching. If I were a rich man, I’d pay to teach.” For all his legendary grumpiness toward God, the distinguished Welsh poet R.S. Thomas thrived on the life of a rural priest (“It was a blessing for me that I entered the Church”), anchoring his aesthetic in the ascetic, and earning a living—in the sense that the characters in Pride and Prejudice would best understand that word—by means utterly different from those of his reckless, feckless, brilliant namesake and near-contemporary, Dylan Thomas. Philip Larkin’s mutterings about work as a “toad” squatting on his life did not blind him from the jewel in this amphibian’s head, and he confessed that his choice of librarianship as a career was, in retrospect, an “inspired” one.

*     *     *

Even if it is true, as my office colleague implied, that poetry is the bonus payment I receive from my job, the option of remaining indefinitely in office does not arise; a maximum retirement age of sixty-five is strictly enforced by the Revenue Commissioners. Although I will embrace the extra time, like a long-lost childhood friend, there are things I will miss in retirement: the contrast and variety that congenial work can bring to a life; the corridor banter; the practicality and camaraderie of colleagues.

My poem for the Revenue Museum summarized our working lives as “the years from shyly signing/entry papers in the Personnel Branch/to the long-service presentation by the Board.” Next year, forty years after signing my own entry forms and undertaking to comply with the Official Secrets Act, I will be eligible for Revenue’s long-service award. Can so many minutes, hours, and years really have passed since my godfather counseled me to shun a civil service career, because government employees were “a bunch of neurotics”? Was it not just a few days ago that a young Les Murray, dubious about the advisability of my combining poetry with a busy day job, suggested that a racehorse should not be doing the work of a carthorse?

Along with the other men and women who have remained in harness since 1970 and who—whatever their initial hopes, dreams, or aspirations—stayed put in the organization, my spouse and I will be treated to a celebratory dinner, courtesy of the Board of the Revenue Commissioners, in the Conrad Hotel opposite the National Concert Hall. The chairman’s speech will mingle earnest tributes to the “devoted staff” with lighter touches: the price of a pint of Guinness in 1970; playlists of hit songs from that year (“In the Summertime,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”); recitals of evocative film titles (Patton, Airport, Love Story), soap operas, and sports stars. Then, gripping my Tipperary Crystal memento, I will face back to my dormitory town, ready to resume my duties next morning, as on countless mornings before.

I have always regarded myself as a civil servant rather than “poet” or “artist”—words I would find embarrassing and presumptuous to ascribe to myself. But, unlike Douglas Dunn and Don Paterson, I would not exactly rush to announce myself in polite company as a Revenue official, lest I spoil the cocktail party, depress the value of neighborhood real estate, or clear the room at an art gallery reception. The Welsh poet Sheenagh Pugh displayed unique mettle in naming a collection, however ironic her intention, Sing for the Taxman: “Sing because you’re the best; because you can,/and sing—why not?—for the taxman.”

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

  • Dennis O'Driscoll's books include Reality Check (Copper Canyon Press, 2008), New and Selected Poems (Anvil Press, 2004), and Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams a collection of essays and reviews, published by Gallery Press in 2001. He worked as a civil servant in Dublin.

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Sing for the Taxman

Revenue and exemptions in the life of a poet.
  • Dennis O'Driscoll's books include Reality Check (Copper Canyon Press, 2008), New and Selected Poems (Anvil Press, 2004), and Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams a collection of essays and reviews, published by Gallery Press in 2001. He worked as a civil servant in Dublin.

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