Monday, 12 April 2010

Writing on the Job

“If you ever leave your job, you will stop writing.” An office colleague-turned-soothsayer relayed this stark prediction to me last year. Most poets, however, seem convinced that they would never begin writing if they were to spend a lifetime in one of the busiest (not to mention least loved) branches of public administration, one attracting more critics than The Waste Land.

Our creative habits are as mysterious to each other as our domestic habits. So, as someone who has neither taken nor given a single poetry workshop or creative writing class, it is natural for me to ask—“not in sorrow, but in contemplation,” to borrow the great Milosz’s phrase—how I would survive if my pay, prospects, pension, and tenure were to depend, irrespective of the vagaries of a fickle muse, on my being able not only to prove my poethood through regular publications, but also to act as a kind of creative sat-nav, plotting my students’ routes toward expressive fulfillment.


Roland Barthes observed that writers do not take holidays. Even if ostensibly on vacation, they continue in one way or another to work: taking note, making notes, checking proofs, dabbling in research, reading toward an essay or lecture; always “on,” they are permanently on duty, on call, on high alert, refusing to desert their posts.

If writers never really take a vacation, neither are they always willing to relinquish their day jobs (T.S. Eliot in publishing, Wallace Stevens in insurance), long after economic necessity can have been the deciding factor. The rhythms of poetry and the routines of work are interdependent for some poets; the discipline and the distraction of the workplace leave the unsupervised unconscious home alone, free to range and roam at its own pace, select its own society, intensity, and pitch.

In the end, however, it is as impossible to fully comprehend the poetry policies of the insurance office writer as it is to draw definitive lessons from the career of the teaching poet. At any rate, Wallace Stevens (who, in his own words, “never believed that it took a great deal to be both a poet and something else”) refused to surrender his job for a Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company pension.

In a letter—written from his office—to Archibald MacLeish, declining the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard for 1955–56, the seventy-five-year-old poet stated, “The Hartford has a rule that fixes mandatory retirement at seventy. Although I am well beyond that age, I believe that I can keep on here as long as I want. To take the greater part of a year, however, for something else would be only too likely to precipitate the retirement that I want so much to put off.” Perhaps the lonely prospect of isolated and unstructured Hartford days, staring out the green-shuttered windows of his clapboard mansion on Westerly Terrace, unnerved him. Or maybe, as he said of Alfred A. Knopf’s plans for a Collected Poems, “I have held off . . . for a number of years because, in a way, it puts an end to things.”

Of T.S. Eliot, his biographer Peter Ackroyd notes: “Even in the years of his greatest fame, he continued with the routine business of publishing. For a man who found it difficult to write for more than three hours a day it was one way of passing time but, more importantly, as he explained in an address in 1951, it was necessary for him to hold a job which other people considered useful; he had so little confidence in his own work that he did not want to risk wasting all of his time upon it.” Randall Jarrell, who died before retirement age, was job satisfaction personified: “I’m crazy about teaching. If I were a rich man, I’d pay to teach.”

For all his legendary grumpiness toward God, the distinguished Welsh poet R.S. Thomas thrived on the life of a rural priest (“It was a blessing for me that I entered the Church”), anchoring his aesthetic in the ascetic, and earning a living—in the sense that the characters in Pride and Prejudice would best understand that word—by means utterly different from those of his reckless, feckless, brilliant namesake and near-contemporary, Dylan Thomas. Philip Larkin’s mutterings about work as a “toad” squatting on his life did not blind him from the jewel in this amphibian’s head, and he confessed that his choice of librarianship as a career was, in retrospect, an “inspired” one.

Excerpt from Dennis O'Driscoll, 'The Taxman Cometh: A Notebook' in Poetry (May 2009), Poetry Foundation, Chicago

Artwork source: denitza(dot)

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