Homer. Shakespeare. The guy who invented dirty limericks. When you become a poet, you join an illustrious fellowship of people who actually took their parents seriously when they said, “You can be anything you want when you grow up!” It’s too bad more parents don’t add the disclaimer: “except ‘poet,’ of course.”
It’s not exactly the easiest career to get into, though. Throughout the centuries, even some of the most famous and popular poets only penned verse after office hours—if they had any job or income at all (we’re looking at you, Whitman). William Carlos Williams was a doctor; Henry David Thoreau worked for a time as a handyman on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s estate; Robert Frost was a farmer before he began seeing frequent publication of his work.
It’s possible to write well and long enough that poetry becomes your main source of income, but it usually takes years and years of thankless effort—or a job as a Poetry Professor. Unlike novelists, who at least have the chance to see their stories adapted for the silver screen or rise up the New York Times bestsellers list, poets are appreciated more in scholastic arenas than popular ones. We’re not sure how many of you would camp outside a theater to buy tickets to Rime of the Ancient Mariner: the Movie.
There are still plenty of reasons to take up poetry, though, either as a career or as a hobby. Poetry has long been praised as one of the highest forms of human expression. Yes, even more than sending a Hallmark card. Through poetry, writers are able to understand and express emotion in ways that other mediums simply can’t replicate. In fact, literature and storytelling as we know it today probably wouldn’t exist if poetry hadn’t come along first. Rhyming ballads and epic poems were some of the first ways that early civilizations recorded their history, recounted morality tales, and made drunken people laugh. To be recognized as a preeminent poet in your day is one of the highest achievements a writer can aspire to.
Poetry is also an extremely helpful way to release pent-up emotions and inner turmoil, especially if you don’t have a punching bag handy. Sure, a freakishly high number of poets end up committing suicide, but every job has its occupational hazards, right? For every manic-depressive drunk there’s an eloquent social poet—in fact, sometimes they’re the same person. Poetry allows a writer to express his or her deepest troubles and highest moments of ecstasy in a way that fiction doesn’t quite match.
And let’s face it - some people simply would rather write about their feelings all day than fix someone’s toilet or file a TPS report. It certainly isn’t the safest bet to make financially, but the fulfillment and peace of mind that come from successfully putting down something as beautiful as "To His Coy Mistress" or "When I Consider How My Light is Spent" is unparalleled in human endeavors. Empires fall, statues crumble, but poetry remains. As Shakespeare wrote so well in his "Sonnet 18","So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee." So what do you say? Feel like becoming immortal?