All jobs seem real to the people who have them, but poets like to make distinctions. They refer typically to “real” jobs when talking about employment outside of academia (illogical though that may be). I’m a poet, and I’ve been told that I have a real job. I work as a senior financial editor at a Brazilian investment bank. Despite an urge early on to enter the teaching profession, for which I had some talent, I went down another road. I had to support my family in Manhattan. By the year 2000, my black beret and cape were gone, but the calling was still with me, so there was nothing for it but to change my way of thinking about the literary life. Over the years, through friendships with many poets and writers, I’d come to see that the only thing that mattered in a so-called literary life was generating literature, and in this case, writing poems. No surprise, then, that I’ve been fiercely interested in major poets who lived “unliterary” lives. We all know the usual suspects.
Wallace Stevens was trained as a lawyer and spent most of his working life as an executive for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. The guy won a Pulitzer Prize in 1955, and he was offered a position at Harvard, but he turned it down. He chose to stay at his job. He liked being a vice president. He was often seen walking along the leafy suburban streets of Hartford in a suit, mumbling to himself. We know what he was doing.
In 1917, when he was 29, T. S. Eliot signed on with Lloyd's Bank in London as a clerk in the Colonial and Foreign department. He would stay for eight years. The writer Lisa Levy, in her article called “A Peaceful, but Very Interesting Pursuit” (The Rumpus, January 31, 2012), notes that Eliot thought himself very fortunate to have found this job, and she quotes from a letter he wrote to his mother in 1917:
“I am now earning £2 10s a week for sitting in an office from 9:15 to 5 with an hour for lunch, and tea served in the office… Perhaps it will surprise you to hear that I enjoy the work. It is not nearly so fatiguing as schoolteaching, and is more interesting. I have a desk and a filing cabinet in a small room with another man. The filing cabinet is my province, for it contains balance sheets of all the foreign banks with which Lloyd’s does business. These balances I file and tabulate in such a way as to show the progress or decline of every bank from year to year.”
It’s both riveting and appalling to hear Eliot speak with such affection about his filing cabinet. Yet in the midst of such a life he conceived The Waste Land, which was published in 1922. Eliot didn’t leave the bank until 1925, when he went to join the publishing house Faber and Gwyer (later Faber and Faber). Granted, this new job was all rather literary, but it was also corporate, and he became a director and went about, happily, in a three-piece suit.
There are other examples. The great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda labored as a diplomat. Philip Larkin worked for 30 years as a librarian at the University of Hull. During these years—more deprivation, perhaps, than daffodils—he wrote most of his glum, bilious and brilliant poems. William Carlos Williams, a doctor, delivered 3,000 babies in the grimy industrial zones of New Jersey. Are there other major poets who’ve delivered even 30 babies? Or 3? If so, I would like to know. We’re talking 3,000 here. I verified this arresting fact with Herbert Leibowitz, whose masterful biography of William Carlos Williams, Something Urgent I Have to Say, was published by FSG in 2011.
Then there is the louche and sublime C. P. Cavafy. In 1892, at the age of 29, he took a job as a low-level clerk in the Irrigation Department of the Ministry of Public Works in Egypt. He would stay for 30 years! According to the Official Website of the Cavafy Archive, when he “was finally able to gain employment… at the Ministry of Public Works, he was hired as a temporary clerk, since his Greek citizenship excluded him from any permanent position. Being an assiduous and conscientious worker, Cavafy managed to hold this temporary position (renewed annually) for thirty years. He was always mindful of his finances, both out of necessity and out of vanity… He started working at the Alexandrian Stock Exchanges early on, and was a registered broker from 1894 to 1902.”
The most “poetic” side of Cavafy’s life—aside from his poems—were his wanderings about the streets of Alexandria after he left the office. We know what he was doing.
I’d like to conclude with James Merrill’s affectionate and counterintuitive thoughts on dear Elizabeth Bishop, who for most of her life never had any job at all, real or otherwise. The quotation below comes directly from the famous Paris Review interview that Sandy McClatchy conducted with James Merrill (Summer 1982, Issue No. 84). This is Merrill speaking:
“Oh, I suppose I’ve learned things about writing, technical things, from each of them [Stevens, Auden, Bishop, a few others]. Auden’s penultimate rhyming, Elizabeth’s way of contradicting something she’s just said, Stevens’s odd glamorizing of philosophical terms. Aside from all that, what I think I really wanted was some evidence that one didn’t have to lead a “literary” life—belong to a ghetto of “creativity.” That one could live as one pleased, and not be shamefaced in the glare of renown (if it ever came) at being an insurance man or a woman who’d moved to Brazil and played samba records instead of discussing X’s latest volume. It was heartening that the best poets had this freedom. Auden did lead a life that looked literary from a distance, though actually I thought it was more a re-creation of school and university days: much instruction, much giggling, much untidiness. Perhaps because my own school years were unhappy for extracurricular reasons I didn’t feel completely at ease with all that… It was du côté de chez Elizabeth, though, that I saw the daily life that took my fancy even more, with its kind of random, Chekhovian surface, open to trivia and funny surprises, or even painful ones, today a fit of weeping, tomorrow a picnic. I could see how close that life was to her poems, how much the life and the poems gave to one another. I don’t mean I’ve “achieved” anything of the sort in my life or poems, only that Elizabeth had more of a talent for life—and for poetry—than anyone else I’ve known, and this has served me as an ideal.”I sign off today on that happy note.