Making a Living in Poetry

Making a Living in Poetry

by Susan Huebert
Jobs People Do | JobsPeopleDo.com

If you read about the lives of famous poets like John Milton and William Shakespeare, you might notice something they had in common. They wrote great poetry which is still popular hundreds of years later, but they also had other jobs. William Shakespeare made only eight pounds for writing each of his plays and even less for his sonnets. He had to work as an actor to make a living. John Milton wrote political pamphlets to help pay his bills. Marianne Moore, a twentieth-century poet, worked as a librarian. Making a living as a poet has never been easy, but is it possible?

Working as any kind of writer can be difficult. Novelists often have to go through many rejections before they can get their books published. Even then, making a living through writing can be hard to make much money. It can be even harder for poets. Their work is often less popular than novels and other types of writing, and they are often unable to sell many copies of their work. Often, they must teach classes or find some other way to make a living while writing poetry on the side. The Manitoba poet Sarah Klassen, for example, taught English for many years while she was writing and publishing.

Being flexible and inventive can help poets make money through their writing. The traditional method of publishing books of poetry is likely to be difficult, but poets can make money in other ways. Magazines in print or online often include a few poems, and literary contests can also be good places for new poets to get their work published. In some cases, poets can even get fulltime work in advertising, producing greeting cards, or other fields where the skills of a poet are useful.

Being able to communicate is an important part of being a poet. Some poets are good at telling stories and others are better at showing emotions. However, all poets learn to use language in new ways. Poetry is a very brief and sparse way of communicating. Often, a few words have to communicate complete thoughts in poetry, and poets have to choose their words carefully.  Even in narrative poems that tell stories, using the fewest words possible can be the most effective. Developing good writing skills is an essential part of becoming a poet. The first step is often to read a lot, learning from poets of the past and present. Courses in English literature or in writing techniques can help new writers develop their skills.

Poets also need to develop their own styles. Some poets like to use complete sentences in their work. Others like to use as few words as possible to say what they mean. Another important factor is what publishers and readers want. Different styles of poetry appeal to different types of people, and publishers’ guidelines can give you a good idea of what works best in each situation. Learning to adapt your writing style will help you become successful as a poet.

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