Poet As Career, Profession, Or Condition?
“To be a poet is a condition, not a profession.” ― Robert Frost
I have a dislike for certain words as they relate to writers (and artists in general): particularly the words ‘profession’, ‘occupation’, and even ‘career’.
‘Professionals’ are often distinguished from what is considered to be the antonym, ‘amateurs’, by their being paid for what they do. But there is something wrong about considering Emily Dickenson unprofessional (an amateur!?), while the writers for Hallmark Card doggerel could be called professionals. I suppose that if you asked these greeting card versifiers what is their occupation, they could justifiably say that they’re professional writers. But for the serious writer, writing is not an occupation; it’s a preoccupation—even an obsession, a case of possession.
It is shameful, but for most writers (and again what I say applies to every kind of artist) it is unrealistic to expect to make a good living just from their work. Yes, some few do, and an even fewer get downright rich. (For those who are exclusively poets, those few and fewer are a helluva lot fewer.)
I like the word ‘vocation’. It means a calling, a dedication to what is a worthy endeavour. Its antonym is ‘avocation’, meaning merely a hobby. Well, being a real writer is a calling, as is being, for example, a dedicated teacher or scientist. It’s not just a hobby or a job. One knows it is what one simply has to do. One may not be rewarded appropriate to the value of what one does, but it is the intrinsic reward that acts as compensation.
It has to be acknowledged that sometimes one isn’t even that good at what one is ‘called’ to do—although commitment and dedication make that less likely than when one is just working for a cheque. That is why writers almost never retire. They’re not doing what they’re doing so they have enough money stashed away to not have to do it anymore.
This may be why even the word ‘career’ bothers me, because it implies, at least for me, a systematic progression up the scale of rankings and ratings—and income. Every time an artist deviates from previous patterns to creatively investigate something new, it seems to be called ‘a bad career move’. It seems very odd to talk about Emily Dickenson’s ‘career’—or Van Gogh’s.
But what really matters has nothing to do with describing the writer’s life. What matters are the writings produced. Better to simply speak of a writer’s oeuvre.