Most people who know poetry know that only a handful of lucky people make a living from writing and publishing it. That was the case even when poetry was widely read; it’s more so the case now, when very few people buy or read poetry.

Now, most poets have writing or literary-related jobs; they are teachers, professors, scholars, editors, publishers, or journalists. Some, if they are well-known and engaging performers, can eventually make a living giving public readings and lectures, or even appearing on television and in documentaries.

But not all poets are cut out for the glamour of the college lecture circuit and PBS. Some prefer the security of a stable, conventional job, writing poetry in their free time. And some of these ordinary people were also great, influential, and timeless poets.

Charles Bukowski: Letter Filing Clerk

It’s probably inevitable that a figure like Bukowski – whose poems romanticized the lives of down-and-out drunks, creeps, and lowlifes – would have a hard time keeping a job. Between his incendiary verse, his uncontrolled alcoholism, and his pugnacious personality, Bukowski could very well be called unemployable. Most of his adult life he spent bumming around the country, working odd jobs, and drinking, until middle age, a bleeding ulcer, and a divorce sent him into writing poetry, and he got a steady job to support himself.

That job: letter filing clerk in a Los Angeles post office. For all the possible jokes about “going postal,” much of Bukowski’s work transmutes simmering rage and self-loathing into bursts of disturbing, vulgar, life-affirming beauty. The tedium of filing letters must have given him plenty of time to stew and ruminate; in fact, only a month after publisher John Martin convinced Bukowski to quit the post office (his longest-term job, over ten years), he published his first novel, not coincidentally titled Post Office. He spent the rest of his life detailing his drunks, his romantic entanglements, and his fury into poetry and novels, but none of it would have been possible without the US Postal Service.

For more information:

Charles Bukowski on Wikipedia
Charles Bukowski homepage

Robert Burns: Tax Collector

Like his father, Robert Burns was born a tenant farmer. Unlike his father, however, Burns had a smattering of education, a talent for writing faux-traditional ballads, and a lot of ambition. So, when his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was published in 1786, Burns set off for the big city of Edinburgh. (There was also the matter of three illegitimate children born within a year to two different mothers, but that’s neither here nor there.)

For a year or so, Burns was the toast of the Edinburgh literary scene; but while local literary celebrity may have been enough to get him invitations to exclusive clubs, free drinks, and plenty of female company (all of Burns’ favorite things), sales of his book were not enough to make a living. So, with children to support and a respectable reputation as Scotland’s greatest living bard, Burns took a more stable position: tax collector. Even while he was being hailed as the national poet of Scotland, Burns spent his days in one of the most detested jobs in history – a situation that some argued led to his premature death at 37.

For more information:

Robert Burns on Wikipedia
Robert Burns homepage

Frank O’Hara: Museum Curator

Frank O’Hara’s job wasn’t exactly boring; as an assistant curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, he had a key role in setting the canon for modern art. By convincing the museum to buy works by his friends – Larry Rivers, Bunny Lang, and Jackson Pollock, among others – O’Hara’s taste and influence helped ensure that abstract expressionism and conceptual art were treated as historically significant and enshrined in the art establishment.

But if it wasn’t boring, it was still ordinary. O’Hara walked to work every day, answered phone calls, begged donors for money, and snuck out on over-long lunch breaks (where he often wrote his poetry). For the most part, O’Hara was not known as a poet at all in his lifetime; among the hip his small, surprising books, like Oranges: Twelve Pastorals and Lunch Poems, were recognized as sharp, offhand amusements, but not groundbreaking. He himself treated his poems as amusements, writing at the spur of the moment and throwing collections together for friends’ books or his own. Some of his finest work was in letters to friends, never intended for publication. But since his death, O’Hara’s spontaneous poetry has been recognized as some of the most exciting, most influential of the century.

For more information:

Frank O’Hara on Wikipedia
Frank O’Hara homepage

Wallace Stevens: Insurance Lawyer

Wallace Stevens’ poetry is some of the most intellectually challenging, boldly imaginative poetry of his generation. Older than most of his fellow Modernists, Stevens didn’t even begin publishing poetry until his late 30s, and most of his great works occurred late in middle and old age. That poetry deals with the role of the imagination in shaping reality, what Stevens called the Supreme Fiction, and with his witty, erudite voice Stevens made a dense, curious body of work.

He probably took so long to get started in poetry because of his job – insurance law. It’s probably no coincidence that his first poem was published in 1914 – the same year he became a vice-president in the Equitable Surety Company (oh, the romance!). Getting a law degree and working into a high position in a company certainly takes time. And it certainly takes a powerful imagination for an insurance lawyer to avoid losing his mind.

For more information:

Wallace Stevens on Wikipedia
Wallace Stevens at Poets.org

Walt Whitman: Government Clerk

Walt Whitman, the most epic, fearless, and innovative poet America has ever seen, had a lot of jobs: journalist, pressman, and teacher, among others. He was a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, as evidenced by his fascination with occupations in many Leaves of Grass poems. But his most successful and longest-term job was probably the most boring job possible: low-level federal bureaucrat.

Whitman had a hard time keeping work because of his scandalous Leaves of Grass poems, with their frank, pan-sexual eroticism. But a letter of recommendation from Ralph Waldo Emerson (whose praise Whitman included on the first edition of Leaves) helped Whitman get a job as a clerk, first with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, then the Attorney General’s office. These less-than-ideal jobs helped stabilize Whitman so he could pursue what he considered more important: volunteering as a nurse for wounded Union soldiers.

For more information:

Walt Whitman on Wikipedia
The Walt Whitman Archive

William Carlos Williams: Doctor

One of the early Imagist poets, along with his college friends Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), William Carlos Williams is best known for his stark, plain-spoken poems like “The Red Wheel Barrow” and “To Elsie.” Williams belief that the American dialect is an inherently poetic language goes hand in hand with his poetic subjects, which are drawn from everyday life in its minutia. Such is the subject of Paterson, his epic-length observational poem on life in Paterson, New Jersey.

He had plenty of time to observe everyday life as a pediatrician and family doctor in Rutherford, NJ. Making house calls to the country and seeing every kind of individual Rutherford had to offer, Williams steeped his poetry in the drama of real life. “The Red Wheel Barrow,” his best-known poem, was famously inspired by an actual wheelbarrow, glimpsed out the window of a dying patient’s bedroom. Arguing that poetry should be “real, not realism, but reality itself,” Williams may not have been the poet he was without his “ordinary” job.

For more information:

William Carlos Williams on Wikipedia
William Carlos Williams on Poets.org