A successful novelist can, with luck, make a bundle, as can a memoir writer (if he or she is fortunate to have had a mother who murders the author’s father in front of his or her eyes), and a third-rate painter can do quite well if a hotel chain or a bank starts fancying his seascapes and sunflowers, but few poets ever made a living from poetry. In past centuries, they could hope for a dinner invitation from some noblemen holed up in his castle to entertain his drunken guests, or even receive a piece of land from the king after writing a paean to his various conquests and massacres. But in modern times, except in the Soviet Union under Stalin, the possibility that poets might toady up to the high and mighty and live thereafter in clover has been foreclosed. Even Robert Frost, who was immensely popular and widely read during his lifetime, had to get a teaching job to support himself. As for the rest of our great poets, going back to Whitman and Dickinson, their combined income from poetry, if it were known, would make them even more incomprehensible in the eyes of many Americans than they already are.
In a country that now regards money as the highest good, doing something for the love of it is not just odd, but downright perverse. Imagine the horror and anger felt by parents of a son or daughter who was destined for the Harvard Business School and a career in finance but discovered an interest in poetry instead. Imagine their enticing descriptions of the future riches and power awaiting their child while trying to make him or her reconsider the decision. “Who has recognized you as a poet? Who has enrolled you in the ranks of poets?,” the trial judge shouted at the Russian poet Josef Brodsky, before sentencing him to five years of hard labor. “No one,” Brodsky replied. He could have been speaking for all the sons and daughters who had to face their parents’ wrath.
Charles Simic, aqui.