I’ve been a poet for a while now. I’ve published two books, have a third on the way, frequently write poems and circulate them to editors hoping someone will want to publish them—and almost as frequently answer the question, “What does it mean to be a poet?” Or, “Why did you choose writing poetry as a vocation?”
It’s still hard to think of poetry-writing as vocational. It’s more than an avocation, far more than a hobby; it’s my working identity. But there’s no salary. A person can’t make a living writing poetry until later in his or her career. Even then it’s dicey. Money for speaking, lecturing, giving readings, conducting workshops comes in waves. Most American poets choose full-time teaching as a way to complement their creative work. They lead divided lives. Teaching is a separate calling with its own objectives and criteria for success.
I, too, have had to teach. I’ve loved teaching—more than a thousand students at many institutions during the past thirteen years. In September, 2007 I completed a Ph.D. so that I would be able to teach at the college level. Teaching is not poetry-writing. Writing and publishing poems, giving readings, is different from taking attendance, creating syllabi, lecturing, assessing, attending faculty meetings, writing reference letters. This latter range of activities is almost, I’ve come to see, incompatible with poetry-writing.
In the Spring of 2007 I went to Vermont Studio Center on an NEA grant. For one glorious month I was paid a small stipend to sit in a private studio with a few books of my choice and a laptop and just write poems. Many of them ended up in my second book. In fact, the spirit of my second book was born in Johnson, Vermont. But such an opportunity rarely arises, at least in my experience. I don’t know how to make it happen again. And even if it does, it’s not year-round work.
Can poetry be a vocation? Would it even be good for a poet to work year-round on poetry? I think it would be, because full-time poets might produce larger, more catalogical works like Paradise Lost or The Inferno. The bulk of current American poetry is short, lyrical, expressive and personal. We don’t have a public poetics in the sense that the Greeks and Romans did, and we don’t have anything like what the early through medieval Britons were writing, such as Beowulf or The Pearl. We no longer have anything like Paradise Lost. Our longer written works are novels, and our financial investment is in movies and music. But poetry can’t be a vocation. There’s scant money in it, and there’s too little interest in what it does formally.
This is not to say that poetry is “dead.” This is not even to say poetry must be esoteric or marginal. It has been and can still be relevant to its readers. We continue to produce poets like Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost—Langston Hughes and Rita Dove. In my time I’ve enjoyed the swimmy attentiveness of John Ashbery and the talky directness of Frank O’Hara. The thrum of rhythmic and musical language has made its way onto the cultural stage in a significant way, especially through the last quarter-century of rap. It’s still a living art; it’s just rarified. It’s shape-shifting. And long-form is essentially gone.
I love to write poetry. I relish the hour or two of working and reworking one poem, one message, finding a handful of images or phrases that, joined together, bring me delight. I finish them in the hope that they will bring delight to my readers. Sometimes they do. I also love writing about poetry, teaching people how to read it. But teaching and writing about poetry is categorically different from writing poetry.
I would love to write poetry all the time. I’d love to be able to focus on one poem that’s researched and thoroughgoing, that collects my sense of the spirit of this age into one text, that builds symphonically. I’d like to write like a poet and get paid like a novelist or journalist. I think I could make good on the opportunity if the opportunity were to exist. I think I could write a Titanic poem, but it would consume my attention for months or years.
Writing a poem requires mental and physical energy. I feel drained after writing one or two poems. I want to go for a walk or lie on my couch. Writing a poem shouldn’t have to be a factor of summer relaxation, only, or of so-called “spare time.” Reading poetry and other things ought to happen each morning. There should be time to meditate and memorize. Writing poetry ought to happen in the heart of the mid-morning and the heat of the afternoon. Managing poetry-related correspondence, plying publishers and reading-venue hosts, ought to happen for an hour or so each afternoon. Then there should be time for dinner and evening activities with family and friends. There should be space for an avocation, such as hiking or cooking. There should be time to attend social events.
Describing the poet’s life this way leads me to realize that I’ve been writing, mostly, in my own commitments’ margins. My poems, though curiously nimble, are yet small. I feel as though my work as a poet has not begun. I’d like to be a poet in my working years, or what is left of them. I’m 41 now. I think I have twenty or thirty years of poetry-writing left in me before retiring. A poet should retire just like everyone else, turning to carpentry or to restoring a classic automobile while making plenty of time for children and grandchildren.
Describing the poet’s life this way also helps me realize why most poets and artists are weird. We don’t have bosses or benefits. We need those things. Meanwhile, it’s okay to teach. Teaching is a high calling, too.
Aaron Belz is a poet and essayist who lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina.