The Wealthy Poet

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Nov 30, -0001 12:00 AM
By Ron Young

Rich is one thing that you'll likely never become because of your poetry writing, no matter how great it is. Most publications don't pay for poems, and even then the very vast majority they receive never get to print. Most poets, even the great ones, down through the years, have not made a fortune on their poetry.

One of the world's best selling books of poetry is The Prophet. Written by Lebanese-born poet Kahlil Gibran in 1923, it has sold over seven million copies, but it took more than 80 years to do it. One of my favourite verses by Gibran are:

The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

Having to compete with radio, television, movies, the Internet etc., for attention, the chances of making real money on poetry writing these days are slim. In earlier times, reading poetry and listening to recitals by poets were among the few forms of entertainment. Back then poets were famous - but they still weren't likely to be rich. In the days of Robert W. Service, poetry was much more appreciated. His poems about the Yukon, like The Cremation of Sam McGee, Dangerous Dan McGrue and my favourite, The Ballad of Salvation Bill, won him international acclaim. Yet, I don't think he ever made much money from his great poetry either, even though he had a number of books published.

Today, books of poetry don't sell well at all. I've seen many volumes of poetry that only sold a few copies at regular price - the rest went for as low as 25. It's gotten so that the phrase professional poet is an oxymoron.

I had a book of poetry published in 1982, which I hoped would sell millions. I was very disappointed. It didn't even make the 3,000 mark. If money was my goal, I didn't make it. Luckily, it wasn't. I later learned that a book of poetry that sells 200 copies in Canada is considered a best seller - in the U.S., 2,000 is a best seller. The only reason my Relics and Souvenirs did so well as it did was because of the media attention I got. I was a Toronto police officer at the time, and cops who are in general seen as "macho" made rare poets. This paradox of images was interesting enough to get me on Toronto radio stations and in newspapers and magazines across Canada.

Although you can't become rich by being a great poet, you can become very rich if you're a great songwriter or novelist. Ironically, to be good at either of these, I believe you have to be a poet first. (There must be some money in poetry writing, however - someone has to write all those all occasion verses for Hallmark and Carleton.)

While poetry currently takes a back seat to other forms of entertainment, it is still alive and life-inspiring to many people. There is still pleasure, beyond money, in writing something that feels good, if only to yourself. If others like it, that's a bonus. If you can get paid for it, it's a great ego-booster, even if it's not enough to cover the mortgage.

Before you submit anything you write anywhere for publication, let me offer a tip - have someone edit it for you. Anyone who can read what you've written and give you constructive advice and criticism is an editor. Don't be offended by their negative comments; be thankful to find someone willing to give you that. Most people don't want to hurt your feelings and aren't entirely honest. That doesn't help. You never learn anything from people who agree with you, so if your editor is unable to criticize, find a new editor. It took me many years to learn that, but there's no sense in getting older if you can't learn from it.
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