Poets on Work


T. S. Eliot worked in a bank for three years, Philip Larkin earned his keep as a librarian, Wallace Stevens became Vice-President of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co., William Carlos Williams was a doctor... Here four contemporary poets talk about their ‘day job’ and its influence on them

Dennis O’Driscoll: It’s chicken and egg really and depends on which came first: the job or the poetry. The poetry life is far more compatible with the working life when the day-job has preceded the poetry and they have learned to cohabit amicably from the start. Poets accustomed to an independent way of life regard the office as a battery-hen cage: Hugo Williams’s ’Oh my God. The idea of an office’ is a cry from the heart of the freelance – or free-range – poet. 

I ‘got a life’ from work; a living which freed me from literary drudgery; access to a distinctive linguistic register; stimulating subject-matter; and the welcome distraction a busy office provides from the obsessive anxieties which bedevil the isolated full-time poet. Only on particularly bad days has the job seemed to be a Larkinian toad, ‘squatting on my life’ like a rooster on a dunghill. As for stuffing – to shout ‘Stuff your pension!’ at the age of 54 would be to have left my mid-life crisis ‘rather late for me’. Besides, I’ll be glad of that nest egg in old age when I am writing my poems of retirement and expire-ment.

Dennis O'Driscoll has worked since 1970 for Revenue and Customs in Ireland. His most recent collection is Reality Check (Anvil, 2007).

Jane Routh: Could I draft a poem in the lunch hour? No way. Let’s get priorities clear here: I get hungry. When work is a small farm – fields, woodlands and geese – it’s an all-pervading condition. It can be an obvious subject matter (poems about land drains, tree-planting, tractors) but even if I think I’m writing about something else altogether, it’s there figuratively. Like weather, which gets into most of what I write, too.

My notebook has waterproof paper and is in the pocket of my work-coat. Mainly it says things like, “Fence 85m, 2 strainers” but under that is “cast cows: cripples and s__tliggers” which I must have liked the sound of. Most phrases I like the sound of I carry in my head until later: I’m only indoors when the weather’s vile.

The ideal ‘day-job’ is one you can get obsessive and wildly enthusiastic about (like mine). I remember someone once telling me he’d tried a full-time job and a part-time job and no job, and yet didn’t write more or better when he wasn’t working; what needs to be written gets written regardless. The worst ‘day job’ would be poetry: what would there be to write about?

Jane Routh’s Teach Yourself Map-Making is published by Smith/Doorstop

Robert Saxton: I find poetry breathes well in confined spaces – the Tube ride, the kitchen between breakfasting and toothbrushing. Work time is taboo but if I could get into the office by, say, 7am, I reckon I could write for an hour. Knowing your notebook is in your work bag, even if many days you never pull it out, is a validation. Colleagues are in spirit supportive, but never ask questions. The price I pay for a salaried job (in illustrated book publishing) is absence of collegiate empathy; the gain is an exeat from the creative rat race. I still can be prolific (in the first four months of this year, I averaged a sonnet every two days). But is my standing in the poetic guild affected by the fact that I pay them no dues?

Robert Saxton’s most recent collection is Local Honey (Carcanet, 2007).

Jean Bleakney: I work in a modern garden centre. Flowers and foliage are supplemented by Italian coffee, WiFi, fragrant candles, body lotions etc. Sensory stimuli and metaphors abound, plus a sprawling vocabulary and lots of people contact. Prolonged periods of deadheading and clematis untangling are good for body and soul. Garden centres are satisfyingly out of step with real time, always pitching ahead to the next season. There’s not much chance to write on the job, but plenty of seeds are sown for sure.

Jean Bleakney’s The Poet’s Ivy is published by Lagan Press.