Diary of a Poet

Bread Labor: Poetry and the Day Job

A woman sitting next to me at an editors’ lunch I attended BC (before Covid) asked if poetry was my day job. Without hesitating, I said yes. Later that day, however, I started to question my response. I define “day job” as work that pays the bills so a person can spend whatever remaining time she has doing what she loves, when the thing she loves does not contribute substantially to the household finances. In other words, a day job is “bread labor,” the job that keeps the poet from starving to death. According to that definition, writing poetry is the opposite of a day job.

I first encountered the term “bread labor” while reading Helen and Scott Nearing’s classic book, The Good Life, in my early twenties. The Nearings’ project, “a personal search for a simple, satisfying life on the land,” fascinated me. Cast out from the society of 1930s America, they looked for a way of “living sanely in a troubled world.” From the book’s introduction, in a list of results from their twenty years of living in rural Vermont, I read this sentence: “We were able to organize our work time so that six months of bread labor each year gave us six months of leisure, for research, travelling, writing, speaking and teaching.”

Reflecting on my forty-plus years of working, including a stint delivering potted plants to a state hospital, fifteen years in IT, and raising money for a poetry non-profit (irony intended) I thought of all the poets who famously stole time from their jobs to write. One of my favorite examples is Wallace Stevens, who locked the door to his office in an insurance agency and produced lines like these: 

Icicles filled the long window   

With barbaric glass.   

The shadow of the blackbird   

Crossed it, to and fro.   

The mood   

Traced in the shadow   

An indecipherable cause.   

                                                            from “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

Reading The Good Life helped me understand the importance of bread labor. A poet needs time to not only write, but read, dream, hang out with other poets, and stare into space. The ideal day job for a poet, therefore, would be one that provides at least some of those needs; it would be energizing and stimulating, but not exhausting, and it would pay enough to provide a decent, if not lavish, living.

Most poets I know patch together a living from any number of sources: freelance writing, teaching full or part-time, editing, working in retail, or as nannies, postal workers, artisans, with a little or a lot of family support, and the occasional grant or prize. In other words, the “day job,” in many cases, is a collection of small income streams that hopefully add up to a livelihood. It’s difficult to switch from job to job in this constant-moonlighting environment, and even more difficult to find the time and mental space needed to write poetry. 

I’m fortunate to have arrived at a place in my life when I can devote more time to poetry than in the past. In order to get here, however, I spent years working at exhausting, non-creative day jobs that paid the bills while raising my two sons. Like so many of us, I wrote at the margins of my day, staying at my desk to work on a short story instead of going out to lunch with my boss and coworkers. Many days, I was happy to record a few lines in my journal. Just as many days, the pages stayed blank.

Other poets who worked demanding day jobs include Langston Hughes (crewman, busboy), William Carlos Williams (pediatrician), Gwendolyn Brooks (typist), Walt Whitman (office boy, printer), Marianne Moore (librarian), Lawrence Ferlinghetti (publisher, bookstore owner), Amy Clampitt (secretary, librarian), Frank O’Hara (museum curator), Mary Oliver (secretary), Philip Levine (auto factory worker), Denise Levertov (nurse, editor), Robert Frost (farmer), Wendell Berry (farmer).

If poetry is more avocation than bread labor, how do we structure our lives so we can devote as much time to it as possible? How can we balance our lives so that work supports us but doesn’t steal all of our energy?

A prolific poet, Stevens’ biography at the Poetry Foundation states, “Unlike many aspiring artists he was hardly stifled by steady employment.”

Many poets find work in academia. A lucky few obtain tenure and full professorships, while most toil as low-paid adjuncts. Full-time teaching allows little time for creativity; teaching as an adjunct is so poorly paid that many work second and third jobs to pay the bills (driving for Uber is a popular choice). 

I read post after post on social media in which people, usually women, ask the same question: between work and family, how can I make time for writing? Over and over, I read the same predictable answers: get up early, sometimes really early – 3:00 am, anyone? don’t watch TV, the laundry can wait, ignore the kids, the dog doesn’t need her walk today. But I think the problem is deeper. We live in a world that forces us to make unrealistic choices. We live in a time that expects art to be free and freely available, a time when billionaire Elon Musk refuses to acknowledge the artist whose art he posts on Twitter.

Working a day job is part of a poet’s livelihood, indeed it must be, since it’s the rare poet who can live from her art. On the contrary: we live for our art. We nurture, share and support it as much as we’re able. It requires sacrifice, solitude, and commitment. It is not, nor has it ever been, a way to get rich. It’s what we do when we’ve met our needs for survival, what sustains us as we do our bread labor, whatever that may be. 

I like to imagine Wallace Stevens at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, his desk covered with policies, claim forms, and other important documents, somehow finding the time to write the last stanza of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:”

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

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