Tom spent his days as a clerk, two floors below ground level in the cellars of Lloyds Bank. He worked in the foreign-transactions department from 9:15 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. each day, and in his free moments between filing and tabulating balance sheets, he wrote.
Tom was better known to the world as T. S. Eliot. By the time he started as a clerk in 1917, his most popular poem—The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock—had been published to great acclaim. But even then, despite his bank salary, the man who has often been called the greatest poet of the 20th century struggled to make ends meet. He accepted money from relatives to buy underwear and pajamas, and anxiety over his finances drove him to breakdowns.
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Poetry has always been an art form, but it has rarely been a career even for the most legendary poets. William Carlos Williams was a doctor. Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive. Charles Bukowski held a bevy of odd jobs, including work as a dishwasher, a truck driver, a gas-station attendant, and a postal clerk. The poet’s story has long been one of a double life, split between two urgent duties: making a living and making art.
Rupi Kaur is a case study in how dramatically the world of poetry has changed since then. The 25-year-old Canadian poet outsold Homer two years ago: Her first collection, milk & honey, has been translated into 40 languages and has sold 3.5 million copies stealing the position of best-selling poetry book from The Odyssey.
Rupi Kaur is a case study in how dramatically the world of poetry has changed since then. The 25-year-old Canadian poet outsold Homer two years ago: Her first collection, milk & honey, has been translated into 40 languages and has sold 3.5 million copies, stealing the position of best-selling poetry book from The Odyssey.
Since the publication of milk & honey, the poetry genre has become one of the fastest-growing categories in book publishing. According to one market-research group, 12 of the top 20 best-selling poets last year were Insta-poets, who combined their written work with shareable posts for social media; nearly half of poetry books sold in the United States last year were written by these poets. This year, according to a survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Census Bureau, 28 million Americans are reading poetry—the highest percentage of poetry readership in almost two decades. Kaur’s publisher, Kirsty Melville, has seen it happen firsthand: “It used to be that poetry was down in the back of the store next to the bathrooms, and now it’s out front,” she told us. “And that naturally helps sales of all poets. The classics and other contemporary poets are selling.”
The rise of the Insta-poet didn’t start with Rupi Kaur. In 2013, Melville noticed that a Cambodian-Australian poet named Lang Leav was becoming popular on the internet, her work passed around on social media. Melville took a leap of faith and signed her to a book deal with Andrews McMeel, her publishing company. That book, Love & Misadventures, sold more than 150,000 copies. “We thought, Huh, there’s something going on here … For a poetry book—a love poetry book—to sell 150,000 copies was notable.”
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In 2010, the editor of n+1 magazine, Chad Harbach, famously wrote that there were two distinct and rival literary cultures in America: the institutional, university-driven M.F.A. track and the New York–centered publishing world. But now there is a third option: the fast-paced, democratizing, hyper-connected culture of the internet. The poets of this third category often have little formal training, and their publishers are strewn across the country. Andrews McMeel, for instance, is an indie publisher in Missouri. Social media seem to have cracked the walls around a field that has long been seen as highbrow, exclusive, esoteric, and ruled by tradition, opening it up for young poets with broad appeal, many of whom are women and people of color.
Social-media poets, using Instagram as a marketing tool, are not just artists—they’re entrepreneurs. They still primarily earn money through publication and live events, but sharing their work on Instagram is now what opens up the possibility for both. Kaur, the ultimate poet-entrepreneur, said she approaches poetry like “running a business.” A day in the life can consist of all-day writing, touring, or, perhaps unprecedented for a poet, time in the office with her team to oversee operations and manage projects.
Building their own mini brands, poets can harness e-commerce to supplement their income.