Enormous Smallness – Work hard and you can become a poet (not a message kids often hear)

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We need artists but we also need to find ways for artists to make a living doing their work. There was a time when I wanted to be a poet. I was told repeatedly that I could be but that I’d need to have a “real job”.

Cummings may have benefited from programs and social structures that don’t exist today.


For sure, right from the start. As Wikipedia sez,

Edward Estlin Cummings was born on October 14, 1894, to Edward Cummings and Rebecca Haswell Clarke who were Unitarian. They were a well-known family in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father was a professor at Harvard University and later the nationally known minister of Old South Church in Boston, Massachusetts. His mother who loved to spend time with her children, played games with Cummings and his sister, Elizabeth. From an early age, Cummings’s parents supported his creative gifts. Cummings wrote poems and also drew as a child, and he often played outdoors with the many other children who lived in his neighborhood. He also grew up in the company of such family friends as the philosophers William James (1842–1910) and Josiah Royce (1855–1916). He graduated from Harvard University in 1915 and then received an advanced degree from Harvard in 1916. Many of Cummings’ summers were spent on Silver Lake in Madison, New Hampshire where his father had built two houses along the eastern shore. The family ultimately purchased the nearby Joy Farm where Cummings’ had his primary summer residence.


Or enough flexibility in “work” that everyone can realistically have a second artistic/creative life. De-couple fundamental well-being from productive employment (basic income, socialized medicine, universal early child care, etc…), and this would be fairly easy to create. Have everyone do Work That Just Needs to Get Done 20-30 or so hours a week, and have the rest of the time for artistic expression. It would make art more interesting (ever get sick of poems about being a poet, stand-up routines about being on the road, raps about being a rapper?) and would spread the work around more equitably. I feel like I read something about this from some upstart thinkers…probably some dirty commies :slight_smile:


Here’s an alternative.

You can also readily start a twitter account for tiny poems or a tumblr, and send those unloved-by-others literary babies out into the internet wilds to earn you fame and fortune.

Or a minute sense of satisfaction, and a goad to further work.

I like e. e. cummings. I’ll have to look into this book.

Best advice I ever got was from fluxus artist Geoff Hendrix. After a performance in Budapest I asked him how I would know if I was an artist.

And he said “if you think you are an artist, you are an artist.”

There I am at 5:04, uncut-hair held up with a bandanna, the star-shirt, wild-eyed enthusiasm*:

Oh. And I ate one of the beans. So I became part of the performance, so it has not yet ended.

* and probably 40+ fewer pounds than today. ugh.

Uh, and eat pudding!


Like Ex-PFC Wintergreen, I reply “T S Eliot”. Eliot was so good at international banking that it was reported that, had he stayed in banking he would have most likely ended up as a director. He was then recruited by the (failing) publisher Faber, for his financial skills as much as his poetry, and actually made it rather profitable. I believe there was another American poet who was a banker, but I forget the name. [edit- Wallace Stevens. Thanks @OtherMichael]
Iris Murdoch the novelist was an administrative level Civil Servant. Dorothy Sayers was an advertising copywriter till she made too much money out of writing. Terry Pratchett was publicity officer for a group of nuclear power stations. Winston Churchill and Julius Caesar were well known for their day jobs. I could go on (and on) but as you will see there is no shortage of counterexamples.


Wallace Stevens worked in the insurance industry, here in CT.

Doc Williams never gave up his day job, either.

Lawrence Ferlenghettei has run City Lights Books as an ongoing concern since the 1950s. That seems so intimately tied with his literary output that it’s hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins (I suppose the bricks-n-mortar might be one indicator, though.)

When I was in college one of the maintenance men* was a darned good poet that I looked up to - Larry Schug.

* A janitor. We all called him a janitor. Never derogatorially, in my limited area of awareness.


Fucken A’. One of my favorite poems is his The Changing Light. Kick ass bookstore, too.


This is just to say that we should not forget the good Dr. William Carlos Williams.


I regularly see a car with this bumper sticker.

I do but I don’t think the driver’s ever heard me.


“Variations on a Theme By William Carlos Williams”


I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.


We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do no know what I am doing.


I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the
next ten years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.


Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!

–Kenneth Koch

I’ve never forgotten that either because it always makes me laugh.



In return.


It’s always so jarring to see e.e. cummings’ name with initial caps.
(I realise it’s not a requirement at all, and he didn’t stick to it himself… just seems weird to me.)

1 Like

its a pity that
e. e. cummings and don marquis didnt
start a bit more of a trend because
if archies method of typing
had caught on more widely
we might have gone back to the middle ages
and writing everything in minuscule
said goodbye to the shift key
and all the annoyances
of database collations
and silly rules for passwords.

mehitabel says
i may be confusing don marquis with e e cummings
but i am only a cockroach
who am i to distinguish poets
when all i see is a foot descending


I’m a poet, but I can’t imagine it would be any fun to make a living with poetry. That shit is harder than working a job.

Anyone can play with words, though, because it’s fun.

What is there left to be written
except the words themselves
for reasons of their own
in the order they dictate
by their own rank and file
calling off roll
in mathematically
conceivable permutations
of the finite set of all words?


All the examples so far of successful careers plus successful writing on the side, except for Dorothy L Sayers (whose only child was given up at birth to relatives to be raised), are of men. Tillie Olsen is one of many women writers who has spoken a lot about how having children (with no full time nanny/housekeeper) is the main reason we don’t see so many women writers. You can never come home from work, if your work involves cleaning, cooking, and taking care of children. It’s never done. And it’s never consistent, so you can’t plan your writing time. She had a huge chunk of time (20 years I think) when she just didn’t write, until the kids were old enough to have their own lives.

So, it’s possible to have it all…as long as you have a wife or wife substitute to do all the grunt work.


Or you do an Iris Murdoch, don’t get married till you’re in your late 30s and don’t have children.


Yup, like Dorothy L. Sayers too.


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