how to earn a living writing poetry

A man finds himself in Hell.  “Who are you?” asks the devil.  The man responds:

I am ʻAlī ibn Manṣūr ibn al-Qāriḥ, from Aleppo.  I was a man of letters by profession, by which I tried to win the favor of rulers. [1]

Writing to please the ruler is a difficult business plan.  Ibn al-Qāriḥ declared:

I was always wretched when I pursued a literary career.  I never profited from it.  I tried to curry the favor of leading persons but I was milking the udder of a bad milch-camel and was exerting myself with the teats of a slow cow.

Judging by the way ibn al-Qāriḥ fertilized his statement with agricultural metaphors, he probably would have been better off being a farmer.  But family farms, like small telephone companies, have always struggled.

french bull

Poets and other literary writers need a broad market of persons willing to pay a high price for poetry.  Wine poems (khamriyyāt) were a saturated market in the early Islamic world for centuries.[2]  But what about poems for drunk husbands trying to appease their angry wives?  A small fee for a poem surely beats getting beaten by one’s wife.  Consider this poem:

If you, fault-finding woman, would drink wine
till all your fingers tingled,
You would forgive me, knowing I was right
to squander all my money. [3]

That might just bring a smile to an angry wife’s face, especially if the meter was playful.  It could be worth big money, if the drunk husband had any.

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[1] Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, Risālat al-ghufrān, from Arabic trans. van Gelder (2013) p. 273.  The subsequent quote is from id. p. 272.  Al-Maʿarrī was a Syrian who died in 1057.  His Risālat al-ghufrān, which imagines a journey to Heaven and Hell populated with historical persons, may have contributed to Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Poetry played an important role in the pre-modern status economy of the Islamic world.  Arabic poetry was functional:

Much of Arabic poetry — most, in fact — was produced for a special occasion, when the poet responded to a specific event or to the needs of a particular person.

Id., introduction, p. xiv.

[2] van Gelder (2013) pp. 40-2 provides two of Abū Nuwās’s wine poems in English translation.  Abū Nuwās is widely regarded as the greatest wine poet in Arabic.  He wrote more than four hundred wine poems.  Id. p. 40.

[3] Poem attributed to Iyās ibn al-Aratt, quoted in Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī, Risālat al-ghufrān, from Arabic trans. van Gelder (2013) p. 276.


Gelder, Geert Jan van. 2013. Classical Arabic literature: a library of Arabic literature anthology. New York: New York University Press.

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