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This report is taken from PN Review 259, Volume 47 Number 5, May - June 2021.

On Matthew Prior
4,000 Guineas
Rebecca Watts
How many hours have poets wasted trying to solve the problem of how to earn a living? I alone spend several hours every month (read week, in my more impoverished phases) searching for opportunities, filling out applications and sending emails, attempting to generate an income by my wits. I can recall the time before I tried to make writing pay, when I’d start poems in my head while walking to work, look forward to typing them up in the evening, and could afford, on my modest full-time wage, to buy new boots in the winter. Seven years of part-time working later, I conclude that the past was better. My time was less flexible, certainly, but the emails were fewer, and my poetic productivity was about the same. Also, my feet more reliably withstood rain and snow.

Is it comforting or depressing to know that, for all but a financially endowed few, the poet’s life was ever thus? In his 1913 lecture ‘The Practice of Writing’, Arthur Quiller-Couch confirmed as much: ‘the poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for two hundred years, a dog’s chance.’ 'Quiller-Couch was by this point a Cambridge professor; at St John’s College, in whose library I happen to work, a meeting room was recently named after him. The last writer before him to elicit this honour was Wordsworth, who had been an (unhappy, underachieving) undergraduate at the college from 1787 to 1791. While Wordsworth wasn’t ‘poor’ according to Quiller-Couch’s criteria (he excludes ‘university men’), two decades passed between his graduation without ...

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