Is there reason to be especially concerned should, for economic or other reasons, the number of available teaching jobs in creative writing be increasingly inadequate to accommodate new MFA graduates with a concentration in poetry? Let me suggest this outcome will not be an entirely dire circumstance for the future state of poetry or for the poetic future of those most affected, when we take a retrospective look at the output and careers of poets who have lived the double life – that is, those who wrote verse at the same time they held down non-poetry occupations. The double life has served many poets quite well.
Emily Dickinson helped maintain the Dickinson household in Amherst and did the baking for the family. Walt Whitman wrote copy and editorial commentary for newspapers; he and C. P. Cavafy worked as government employees. There was William Carlos Williams, who practiced medicine, and, for eight years, T. S. Eliot chose to be a banker. Marianne Moore and Edna St. Vincent Millay were employed in various, unrelated positions while still writing. Pablo Neruda, a diplomat and politician; Robert Frost and Wendell Berry, farmers.
I’m judging that young poets do not need to get hung up on teaching as the narrow means open to them for a successful poetry career. Indeed, Wallace Stevens felt strongly the lessons he learned in business – he ran the surety claims department for the Hartford Insurance Company – improved his verse. When offered a poetry chair at Harvard, he turned it down in favor of the double life.
Is the Wallace Stevens precedent counterintuitive? I think not, and not because he didn’t care deeply about the part of his life that dealt with poetry. No, there is a more subtle reason. Most serious poets write poems for those surprises through which verse should always lead. Why would it therefore be confusing that someone who constantly traveled someplace unusual through the venue of his verse could also behold the other side of his double life being both surprising and inviting as well? After all, we do not merely leave who we are on the page; rather, we bring who we are to the page.
It’s often not a freedom of choice to adopt a double life, for many poets must accept that path before a career break or an accumulation of breaks occurs. Today, there are known poets who have, along the way, been an accountant, a biologist, an administrator, a musician; in fact, there are still others, including this author, who permanently choose a double life.
If this course seems necessary or opportune, I offer a few guidelines. First, let your poetic side help you select a non-poetic job. You can’t go home at night with verse on the agenda and be befuddled or burdened by an unhealthy and severe day at work. Second, pick a job that will not wear you out physically. Have energy remaining to respond affirmatively to the siren call of your verse. Third, make sure your daily job is not jejune or vapid, for that will surely convey itself into your writing. Finally, give yourself moments of recovery during each work day to jot down a thought or two or three related to your verse – for, believe me, the thoughts will come.
Once developed with flexibility, practicality, and a little elan vital, the double life can become a durable answer to the many questions hovering around a commitment to the writing of verse.