Beyond “What You Know”: On Poetry & Prosperity

October 2007 Family Fun MagazineBy Sage Cohen

When I majored in comparative literature as an undergraduate, my friend Jayne’s father, an accountant, asked me what kind of job I intended to land with such an ambiguous degree. “It will teach me how to think, and I’ll be good at any number of jobs if I’m a capable thinker,” I countered. His sons and daughter were getting practical degrees: accounting, journalism, medicine. Each knew what he or she would be doing with their education. Jayne’s father shrugged his shoulders and wished me luck.

Five years later when I was a year into a master’s degree in creative writing, Jayne’s father asked me why in the world I would get such a useless degree and how I intended to make a living when I graduated. The smart aleck in me responded, “I’m going to marry your son Abe, and he’s going to support me.” Jayne’s father never inquired into my career path again.

I think this conversation reflects a typical cultural fear: if you pursue the arts, you will starve. You will become ill suited for the workplace. No one will hire you. End of story. This is why many a parent has discouraged many a poet over the years from embracing such impractical passions.

I never bought into the starving artist archetype. For me, starving is no fun. Being penniless is a grind. Just as you can’t plant potatoes on a bridge, it’s hard to build a creative practice on a life that has no foundation on solid ground. A roof over my head and the certainty of being able to pay my monthly expenses have always been the foundation of my creativity.

When writing poetry, there’s a very simple way to sidestep the starving artist archetype: don’t expect to make a living writing poetry. Jayne’s father was right: poets don’t make a living writing poetry. A creative writing class may refine your use of metaphor to a surgeon’s precision, but that won’t buy you a cup of coffee. There is a very important distinction between money and prosperity. It’s easy to lump these together, but I propose that you don’t. Instead, I’d like you to consider how you define prosperity. For me, a leisurely afternoon in a coffee shop with a pile of poetry books, a notebook and a pen, and a regular refill of tea is prosperity. A good conversation with a friend is prosperity. My dog licking my face is prosperity.

This is not to say that we who write poetry are somehow above earning a good income. I’m just pointing out that income is one thing, and prosperity is frequently something else. Wallace Stevens, one of the most wildly imaginative poets on record, was an insurance adjustor by day. William Carlos Williams was a pediatrician. Mari L’Esperance is a therapist. The great blessing of poetry is that a “day job” can’t take poetry away from you.

Nor do you need poverty to write poetry. You simply need to know what prosperity means to you, and create a balance of what you do for money and what you do for poetry.

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Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. In 2006, she won first prize in the Ghost Road Press annual poetry contest. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University where she was awarded a New York Times Foundation fellowship. Sage teaches Poetry for the People and Personal Essays That Get Published.

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