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On Becoming Rich and Famous ...

        I'm all in favor of poets being recognized and being paid as much as possible.  But if recognition and payment are what you are after, poetry is one of the worst possible ways to go about getting these.  Hundreds of my poems have been published over the past quarter-century, many in our most highly respected magazines.  For one long poem I received $500.  A woman's magazine once paid me $10 a line for a 20 line poem.  Several anthologies have brought me $25-$50 for reprint rights.  Those are top rates and its a good thing I wasn't trying to feed the family on the proceeds.  A dozen acceptances in a year from respected, paying markets (e.g. Harper's, Atlantic), at less than a hundred dollars a poem, would mean a year of dazzling success for most widely recognized poets.  An advance of $500 on a book from a major publisher would be generous and the book would be almost certain to earn no royalties beyond its advance.

        Poets don't support themselves writing poetry.  Some few draw healthy fees from readings.  (I get $200 per reading a few times a year.)  [That was in 1981 dollars.]  Others are able to publish more profitable prose (e.g., James Dickey's novel and film, Deliverance) partially because of their reputation as poets.  Some are wealthy, some live hand-to-mouth on occasional sales and odd jobs, but most are employed in ordinary ways.  Many are professors, as I was for twenty years.  Some are supported by their mates.  But for none that I know of is poetry a full-time profession.  You do not become a poet as one becomes a doctor or lawyer or businessman.  One becomes a doctor, lawyer or businessman, and, when he can, writes poetry.

        This condition is probably healthy for poetry.  If the rewards were comparable to those for, say, television writing, so probably, would be the products.  I think of income from poetry as I do for making love.  Not many are willing to pay me for it, or not much, or not steadily, and that is probably just as well, for if it were otherwise, what I would be making would not long be love.

        Fame is a lot easier to acquire through poetry than is an income, but it is tricky and corrupting.  If you are serious as a poet, you are not likely to have a high regard for popular taste in the art, and if taste is for your own work, you may well be suspicious of its value.  I have been something of a critic myself, especially at the low level of book reviewing, and the more I learned about that occupation the less respect I had for it.  One might think that the critical appreciation a poet would most value would be that of a tiny but knowledgeable community of fellow poets, but, in fact, the opinions poets have of one another's work are even more suspect than those of critics who are not poets.  We all yearn to be "recognized" but by whom?  It is helpful when one's name is recognized by magazine editors, and they can keep their opinions to themselves so long as they publish our work.  Alas, poetry, like most serious writing, is a lonely art.  Your audience is posterity, which never lets you know it heard.  Dylan Thomas said of his "craft and sullen art" that his audience was

... the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

In spite of his fabulous success during his lifetime, Thomas earned little by writing which forced him into the orgiastic reading tours, the fame, which killed him.  He will be better rewarded by the lovers through the ages who pay no praise or wages.  You will be a happier person and better poet if you put both praise and wages out of your head though that isn't easy.

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