I followed a Facebook discussion last week on whether poets are best to work as full-time writers, or work in a completely different field. Those advocating the former were (unsurprisingly) full-time writers and supporters of the latter had other forms of income.
The argument was that, if you have a full-time job, it’s bound to sap your creative energy – in addition to sapping 40 hours a week of time you could have spent writing. A full-time poet is bound to become a better writer than he/she would become if burdened with a job. The counter-argument was that working offers experience that informs poems, and that many famous poets (Wallace Stevens, WC Williams, TS Eliot, Philip Larkin etc) held down demanding jobs and still managed to write plenty of good poems. As someone who holds down a demanding job, I sided with the counter-argument.
However, I’ve been thinking more about it since. It is indeed true that I often have to break off writing a poem and do a whole load of other things. It’s also true that I get tired and sometimes have little energy for writing poems; even if the will is there, the flesh is weak. There is definitely a downside to combining poetry with a busy job. On the other hand, most ‘full-time’ poets make a living through doing tutorials and workshops, giving readings, writing articles/novels, teaching creative writing, and a host of other work activities that don’t consist of actually writing poems. The few who only write poetry must have a working spouse or other generous relative/benefactor, in addition to Arts Council grants. Almost no one can live off writing poetry alone. It’s easy to romanticise poverty (only a –v away from poetry) but, if you can’t pay the bills, your mind may not be fully on the blank sheet of paper in front of you.
What do you think? Is having a full-time job helpful or destructive for a poet?