SENTINEL POETRY (ONLINE) #42
The International Journal of Poetry & Graphics...since 2002
MAY 2006 ISSN 1479-425X Editor: Amatoritsero Ede
The Professional Poet?
Is it possible, strange as it may sound in the fiercely capitalist economy of the quotidian, that there exists such a creature as a professional poet today – perhaps in certain parts of the world? Obvious as it might appear, it is nevertheless necessary to emphasise that by ‘professional poet’ reference is to those who do nothing else for a living but write poetry and live by its proceeds – which will surely be close to nothing! If this economic wonder does exists, is the professional poet not destined for the doghouse – or shall we call it pigsty, reminiscent of the prodigal son in the Bible who must steal from the pigs and eat their food? Apart from the basic necessities of subsisting in a competitive economy, it is not impossible that some poets, weaned on ‘the image’ as they are, can relish the sensuous to an extreme, be keen as sword-blades and love to live life to the scabbard-hilt; as such there has to be an absent but prospectively magnanimous father-surrogate, for whom he would be a literary ‘foundling’. Literary patronage is as old as writing itself. We can go as far back as Ancient Rome to find examples.
Ancient Rome’s patronage system was diverse and involved not only the literary arts but embraced the whole society in a pyramid of dependency at the top of which was the king (during the imperial period). There were literary, social and communal gradations on this pyramid; emphasis is on the cultural, that is, the literary. A client-patron (cliens-patronus) relationship was mediated by the writer or poet’s financial straits and the desire for immortality by the patron – powerful, aristocratic or famous, who is nevertheless scared of losing all that to the oblivion of death. Poets after all can immortalise him in verse or prose, dedicate works to him or even augment his public positions while he lives and breathes. Yes, there was politics involved too. The poet could consolidate a patron’s political or social position by augmenting in verse the latter’s profile in the former’s work. It was a mutually beneficial position for patron and poet alike. In ancient Rome the poet did not receive any royalties, had to pay for and even distribute his own works by himself, so having a rich and powerful patron was useful in promoting the writer on the one hand and imbuing the patron with prestige (while alive and immortality while dead).
Publius Vergilius Maro, that is, Vigil, Horace or Quintus Horatius Flaccus and Propertius, also known as Sextus Propertius all enjoyed the promotion and support of Gaius Maecenas, famous patron of the arts in the Roman world and a close associate of Emperor Augustus. Vigil’s Aeneid propagated a god-like Augustus’, presenting him as an almost divine ruler; Horace’s odes sings the defeat of Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius in Actium in the hands of Augustus. In a world built by slaves, a patron could sometimes raise the social position of slave or serf, who happens also to be a writer. An example was Terence Lucanus, who was a senator and patronised Publius Terence Afer, slave-playwright of African origin. But our focus is on the poet particularly. And this brings us to Shakespeare – known for his plays mostly but also a remarkable poet.
Shakespeare had not just one but a whole group of patrons, made up of figures drawn from the aristocracy of the day. The Walsingham-Sidney-Pembroke-Excess literary circle promoted not only Shakespeare though, but a group of poets and writers, including Shakespeare. The group was referred to either as the Excess or the Wilton Circle, depending on which of those two places it met. Of course some of Shakespeare’s works where dedicated to those members of the aristocracy who supported him – for example the long poems “Venus and Adonis” and the “Rape of Lucrece” are dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley. Through the agency of the poet the politician is indeed immortal!
Unlike in Ancient Rome where the poet was an unofficial megaphone of the State, medieval England, from the time of James I, installed a Poet Laureate, who was informally sworn to propagating the Monarch’s political ambitions and formally to composing poems for official and personal royal functions like births, deaths and so on. The position of poet laureate grew from an ancient custom where the King had minstrels and versifiers attached to his household.