For the better part of the last half of the twentieth century and all of the twenty-first, so far, the money for creative writers has been in screenplays. This is where you might actually make a million dollars selling a script that will probably never even be produced. TV, of course, could beat that if you get a staff job somewhere, especially on a successful sitcom. Of course, that means Hollywood is buried in spec scripts—probably millions of them by now.

But I don’t cover Hollywood. I’ve taken my stabs at it and heard all the tales of fame and fortune, and all the horror stories of watching your story rewritten and rewritten over and over again until whatever you started with is gone completely…

Outside of Hollywood, though, the money is in novels. And I like that territory because there the author is king. Editors are there to help you, not to rewrite you or homogenize you. If a publisher is behind a book it means they’ve decided that your vision might make them some money. I like that, and I bet everyone reading this likes that, too, so we’re all writing novels, trying to sell novels or self-publish novels. Yes! Don’t stop doing that.

Novellas are making a pretty good run at it, too. I’ll credit the e-book for that, which allows us to publish shorter works, sell them for a couple, two-three dollars, and that’s great. Tor.com is publishing a bunch of fine novellas, so that’s not an impossible market—though much smaller.

People (at least a few people) also still read short stories. Short stories continue to be a way to work your way up into a genre community. Get a few stories in (online or print) magazines and anthologies, and the right people start to see your name out there, and your novel will then (at least maybe) have a more welcoming set of eyes on it. Definitely, be writing short stories.

And then there’s the lowly poem, the forgotten form. Poetry is, believe it or not, still being published. Some of the markets even pay a little bit of money for poems. Books of poetry are still being published, and rare birds like me occasionally buy them. But money? Fame and fortune? No.

Just, no.

So then why bother? Why would anyone ever write a poem?

I’d be hard pressed as a consultant and writing coach to muster the nerve to advise anyone to pursue a career as a poet. I honestly don’t think that’s a thing. You might be a literature or classics professor who is also a poet, and that’s great, but job title: poet? Probably not.

So, there’s no money in it, very little audience… why do it?

Why not?

I’ve been writing and (very occasionally) publishing poetry for, what? Almost thirty-five years now? I think the most I’ve been paid for a single poem was $20. Added all up I don’t think all of my published poetry grossed a full hundred dollars.

I write poetry because I like it. It allows me to work creative muscles I don’t normally work. But maybe most of all, poetry allows me to finish something very, very quickly. Certainly very, very quickly compared to a novel. That feeling of creating a finished work is more than worth the time spent on the work itself, so whatever money might follow is of zero consequence.

It used to be that authors of what we now call “speculative fiction,” or science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural horror, regularly wrote poetry as well as short stories and novels. In my long read-through of the January 1925 issue of Weird Tales, I ran across the poem “Two Crows” by Francis Hard, which you can read here.

Some of my favorite authors from that era at least dabbled in poetry, including some of the formative authors of the speculative genres. For instance, you can find all of the poems of H.P. Lovecraft here, including:


O’er the midnight moorlands crying,
Thro’ the cypress forests sighing,
In the night-wind madly flying,
     Hellish forms with streaming hair;
In the barren branches creaking,
By the stagnant swamp-pools speaking,
Past the shore-cliffs ever shrieking;
     Damn’d daemons of despair.
Once, I think I half remember,
Ere the grey skies of November
Quench’d my youth’s aspiring ember,
     Liv’d there such a thing as bliss;
Skies that now are dark were beaming,
Gold and azure, splendid seeming
Till I learn’d it all was dreaming—
     Deadly drowsiness of Dis.

 But the stream of Time, swift flowing,
Brings the torment of half-knowing—
Dimly rushing, blindly going
     Past the never-trodden lea;
And the voyager, repining,
Sees the wicked death-fires shining,
Hears the wicked petrel’s whining
     As he helpless drifts to sea.

 Evil wings in ether beating;
Vultures at the spirit eating;
Things unseen forever fleeting
     Black against the leering sky.
Ghastly shades of bygone gladness,
Clawing fiends of future sadness,
Mingle in a cloud of madness
     Ever on the soul to lie.

Thus the living, lone and sobbing,
In the throes of anguish throbbing,
With the loathsome Furies robbing
     Night and noon of peace and rest.
But beyond the groans and grating
Of abhorrent Life, is waiting
Sweet Oblivion, culminating
     All the years of fruitless quest.

King of the action-adventure sword and sorcery yarn Robert E. Howard wrote poetry as well, including:


I remember
The dark woods, masking slopes of sombre hills;
The grey clouds’ leaden everlasting arch;
The dusky streams that flowed without a sound,
And the lone winds that whispered down the passes.

Vista upon vista marching, hills on hills,
Slope beyond slope, each dark with sullen trees,
Our gaunt land lay. So when a man climbed up
A rugged peak and gazed, his shaded eye
Saw but the endless vista—hill on hill,
Slope beyond slope, each hooded like its brothers.

It was a gloomy land that seemed to hold
All winds and clouds and dreams that shun the sun,
With bare boughs rattling in the lonesome winds,
And the dark woodlands brooding over all,
Not even lightened by the rare dim sun
Which made squat shadows out of men; they called it
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and deep Night.

It was so long ago and far away
I have forgotten the very name men called me.
The axe and flint-tipped spear are like a dream,
And hunts and wars are like shadows. I recall
Only the stillness of that sombre land;
The clouds that piled forever on the hills,
The dimness of the everlasting woods.
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.

Oh, soul of mine, born out of shadowed hills,
To clouds and winds and ghosts that shun the sun,
How many deaths shall serve to break at last
This heritage which wraps me in the grey
Apparel of ghosts? I search my heart and find
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.

Legendary fantasist Clark Ashton Smith wrote a lot of poetry, which you can find here, including:

A Phantasy of Twilight

Ere yet the soaring after-fire was flown,
I found a city in the twilight lone—
Asleep in lapse of some forgotten land
And griping horizons of deserts prone.

Ah, strange with time and ruinous it was!
The seeping sand through idle gates did pass,
The garths were barren, and each breasted grave
Was rock-reluctant to the nursling grass!

But in the dusking palaces I saw
Twilight rebuild the broken thrones of Law—
Affording unto fanes long-desecrate,
What elder glooms of mystery and awe!

And walls and columns, in the ghostly gleam,
Lit as with memory of a past supreme,
Held mightier form portentous for awhile,
Ere night should whelm them like a crumbling dream.

And, lo, from courts and arches, unconfined,
Rode forth, unto some desert bourn assigned,
The evanescent pomps of ghostly dust,
On thin and momentary manes of wind!

And last, but I hope not least…

Kaiju Sonnet No. 1

From sunken Atlantis a beast did crawl
Through darkness impenetrable
With will, unshakable
Open-mouthed, consuming all
Still hungry since the Great City’s fall
Lifting itself through wrecks unnamable
And into the gloom of starlight so damnable
Broke the waves with a wailing call

And unaware within its sights
Turning westward to the nearest coast
Its shoreline bespeckled by innocent lights
Glittering in safety none thought mere boast
Was the beast then within its rights
To with its breath set that city to roast?

…by yours truly, published in the May 2017 issue of (the now-defunct) magazine Bloodbond.

I write poetry, I read poetry… try it!


—Philip Athans, Poet Laureate of the Upstairs Hallway of His House


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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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2 Responses to WHY NOT POETRY, TOO?

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