Why Hire a Poet?

I’m not on the job market, so I can use myself as an example in this post. But I’ll try not to brag too much. Poets generally have reasonably high self-esteem, but not huge egos. This probably stems from the fact that most people don’t think of poets in the highest regard. We’re seen as a little strange, I think. But it’s still a respectable profession, though it is one where we face an enormous amount of rejection. We send poems out to magazines, and even with a good submission, most come back unused. More often than not, the whole submission comes back, but we’re thrilled when 1/5 or 1/4 is kept by a publication! (One poem accepted out of four or five in a submission is great. Two is superb.)

This turns poets into perfectionists. We tend to be very detail oriented, though we’re also able to laugh about it (most of the time) and don’t get overwhelmed by our own attention to detail. If I truly were OCD, I don’t think I could live as a poet. I manage the details; they don’t manage me. Or at least, that’s what I like to think.

But more than paying attention to details and paying attention to language at the most subtle levels, which any poet needs to do, you will find that poets have developed a keen sense of structure. This comes from looking at sentences and from looking at how those sentences (and the sounds and images that make them up) are arranged in the grid of the poem, across lines and stanzas or between the poems of a book.

Recently, I was asked to revise the student bulletins at my university. These are publications for undergraduate and graduate students that range anywhere from nearly 400 pages to about 150 pages. They contain descriptions of the university departments, policies, programs, and courses. It is a lot of different kinds of information, in other words. It seems to me that a poet was perfect for this job, even though that might not be the first person you’d think of. After all, the language is these publications is far from poetic.

Nonetheless, it involved arranging and rearranging lots of information, which called for the attention to detail and structure that I’ve developed as a poet over the years. Thinking about how to arrange the information and how to convey it in logical, consistent ways is exactly what a poet does on a micro level every day. This task just meant applying it on a larger scale. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I do a little programming for myself on the side (for fun and to calculate my grades), and that I know my way around web design (at least passably) and have learned a few online authoring tools like WordPress and Joomla!.

The lesson I take from this experience is that employers shouldn’t look down on someone who’s a poet, thinking that they are only impractical ninnies with their heads in the clouds. In fact, poets can be very practical, very goal driven, and very down-to-earth. Poets, on the other hand, can learn from this not to hide the fact that they are poets, but to emphasize the skills that they have developed. There are many kinds of poets and many different ways their avocation might help them in their vocation. Sell it, when you’re on the job or on the job market! And don’t wait until someone hires you to start applying your skills to other areas. Take up other forms of writing, including writing for the web or technical writing. Don’t be afraid to move into ‘non-poetic’ fields and bring some poetry to them.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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