Poetry is fine, poetry is good, but poetry won't pay the rent. I lamentably discovered that people didn't really buy very much poetry a few years ago. At the time, I simply assumed that one could make a living by writing poetry, without the need to work a second job. This was cleared up for me quite quickly when my agent informed me that there was no chance in hell of making enough money to live off of, unless I was either extremely prolific and popular -- to the tune of two or three collections a year. The point was driven home when a poet from the west of Canada gave a lecture at my school, prefacing it with the lovely phrase, "If you want money, do anything but poetry.". He then went on to detail how he'd never had time to write poetry until his retirement, because what modest success he had had hadn't even covered the rent for the time he'd needed to write. He also took time to mention how much he loved what he was doing, even if it had taken him a long time to get around to it.

To put things into perspective: a best-selling collection from a new poet will probably run to about fifty thousand sales. In particularly exceptional cases, it might come close to one hundred thousand. A best-selling novel from a new author, however, could tower up past a million sales. As well, publicity and book tours are much easier to arrange for a novel, meaning that there is less promotional overhead to deal with.

Despite all of this, one cannot help but notice that the average person can name several poets from years-gone-by, but will struggle with novelists. John Grisham will probably not be remembered in a hundred years, but maybe Anne Michaels will be. So, perhaps writing a novel is your best chance for turning a profit, and writing poetry is your best chance for posterity. Of course, that's somewhat inaccurate, as prose did not always dominate the literary market in the manner that it now does. However, writing a single brilliant poem could leave you in the Oxford Anthology of Verse, where you will be mis-interpreted by schoolchildren for many years to come. Writing a single brilliant paragraph in a novel seldom brings such lauding.

In conclusion, professionally penning poetry isn't an excellent career decision. I have my doubts that anybody thinks that it would be. Regardless, you can always temp to support yourself.

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