Rich Poet, Poor Poet

This post is part of the Creativity and Money series.

Mark standing outside a room in a Japanese house

This photo shows me at the threshold of the room where the Japanese haiku master Matsuo Basho wrote his first book of poetry.

There’s practically nothing in it, beyond the tatami mats covering the floor, a low writing table and a lantern. It would have been similarly empty in Basho’s day.

Basho was the son of a low-ranking samurai, who worked as a servant for a few years before deciding to commit to working as a full-time poet. Then as now, this wasn’t seen as a particularly respectable or lucrative career path.

He earned his living as a poetry teacher and although several of the collections and anthologies he published were commercially successful, he had a pretty frugal lifestyle. He lived in a simple hut built by his students, who planted the banana tree (basho) in his garden that gave him his pen name.

His work was popular in urban literary circles, but Basho renounced their sophisticated society in favour of wandering like a hermit across the Japanese countryside, composing poems on a series of long journeys by foot.

Visiting Basho’s birthplace, I couldn’t help comparing it to the house in Stratford-upon-Avon where William Shakespeare was born, eighty years before Basho.

Shakespeare's birthplace

The two wooden buildings date from approximately the same period, and to me anyway, there’s a distinctive similarity about their atmosphere. They look pretty spartan to modern eyes, although for the time they would have been considered comfortable.

Shakespeare’s birthplace is a typically narrow, slightly cramped, Elizabethan town house. in Basho’s house the walkways and sliding doors opening onto the gardens give it a more expansive feel. But there’s a timeless, meditative quality to both buildings – at least to poetically-inclined 21st-century tourists.

Shakespeare took a very different path to Basho. While his Japanese counterpart forsook the city for solitude and wilderness, Shakespeare headed for London to seek his fortune. He became an entrepreneur and purveyor of popular entertainment in the theatres of Southwark, one of the dodgiest neighbourhoods in London.

The explosion of Elizabethan theatre meant late 16th-century London was like Hollywood in the 20th century or Silicon Valley in the 21st – a Mecca for ambitious people who wanted to make money from their creative talent.

As a share-holder in one of the most successful companies of the drama boom, Shakespeare became a rich man and bought the biggest house in his hometown for his retirement. He also had a reputation as a bit of a tightwad.

Although I struggle to read Basho in the original Japanese, he’s up there with Shakespeare as one of my all-time favourite poets. They are both acknowledged giants of literature, and it would be very hard to separate them on artistic merit.

Two great poets: one chose a frugal life in the country; the other made a fortune in the big city.

When it comes to creativity the only thing that matters is the quality of your work. You can be rich or poor, and it won’t make any difference – as long as you don’t let riches or poverty become a distraction from doing your real work.

About the author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and a creative coach. For some free advice on aligning your creative and financial goals, listen to the audio seminar 5 Essential Money Skills for Creative People.

How to get creative work done in an "always on" world

Productivity for Creative People

Mark McGuinness' latest book Productivity for Creative People is a is a collection of insights, tips, and techniques to help you carve out time for your most important work – amid the demands and distractions of 21st century life.

“Of all the writers I know, I have learned the most about how to be a productive creative person from Mark. His tips are always realistic, accessible, and sticky. It’s not just talk, this is productivity advice that will change your life.”

Jocelyn Glei, author and Founding Editor, 99U

More about Productivity for Creative People. >>

Responses to this Post


  1. Rosanne Bachman says:

    Domo arigato gozaimasu – Couldn’t resist using the little Japanese I know. I am a friend of the Globe and love Shakespeare. I have been to his house and marvel at his writing and the messages he delivered or the actors did. The money never seemed to detract him from doing what he did best. May that happen to us all!

  2. How true that there is not a unique valid creative lifestyle nor a single valid creative path! Studying the lives of creative people makes that truth apparent.

    You mention the Quality of creative work, a word some people vigorously reject. Do you have a blog post to which you could post a link on the subject of what quality means in reference to creative work?

    (I absolutely believe there is such a thing as quality, novelty, and so forth in creative work, but I would like to read how you articulate the idea).

    • Hi Fritzie, I don’t think I do have a post about that, maybe I should write one though! Thanks for the idea.

      Why do you think some people reject the word quality in relation to creative work?

      • In some cases it might be to encourage people who are intimidated by the 10,000 hour rule.
        In some cases it might be out of a strongly egalitarian instinct.
        For those thinking in commercial terms, there may be a disconnect between what people seem to pay for and what the artist himself or his mentor consider quality.
        I think you should write a post

        • Interesting.

          I’m all for encouraging people, but to me the 10K hour rule is an egalitarian way of looking at things – if you knuckle down and do the work, Gladwell suggests, the opportunity’s there for you.

          I can relate more to the bit about the artist’s criteria vs the market’s taste.

          OK I’ll think about this some more and see if I can come up with a post of sufficient (ahem) quality. 😉

  3. Beautiful post, Mark. I’m feeling more Basho than Shakespeare when it comes to my bank account 🙂 And while I am open to greater financial success, I am at I point where I feel the balance of my focus is right. It’s taken me a long time to get to this stage and I reckon that milestone warrants champagne!

  4. Nice aricle like always. Don’t you think creative style and who we are will lead us to take the path? It is not a choice. For example a haiku poet doesn’t like to be in a luxury, busy life style. It is not a choice, it is built in his soul. If he acts different way then he betray his poems.

    • The busy President of the European Council published a book of haiku.

      I know people who are very busy who write haiku.

    • Yes, I agree that it’s not a choice.

      So did Philip Larkin – when an interviewer asked him why he wrote such humdrum, depressing poems, he said that he agreed with the criticisms but he didn’t have a choice, he just wrote the poems he could and was grateful for them.

  5. Gurudatt Kundapurkar says:

    Haiku form did fascinate me for its sheer beauty, simplicity and focus on the little but unobvious wonders around us. From a haiku website when I read the poems I found at least some of them highly subjective, in fact, bordering on hallucinations and thus difficult to visualise and empathise with the poet. And almost all of them defied the traditional haiku structure. The issue is not breaking the rules but failing to share the poet’s joy, sorrow or even just unaffected observation with the readers. What do you have to say, Mark?

    • Hi Gurudatt, good to see you.

      It’s a bit hard to comment on the haiku you mention without seeing the actual poems.

      Re the ‘rules’ of haiku, I was surprised to learn that Japanese poets sometimes write their poems vertically and sometimes horizontally, sometimes with line-breaks and sometimes without, which is very different to English-language poetry, where the line-breaks are practically set in stone. And it’s debatable whether having 3 lines of 5-7-5 syllables really approximates to the haiku verse form in Japanese. So it doesn’t bother me too much if poets writing in English don’t observe the ‘traditional’ structures.

      As for the subjectivity… well I guess that will strike different readers differently. 😉