dream job: poet or engineer?

Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey, London.
by Wendy Cope

'Why isn't there an Engineers' Corner in Westminster Abbey? In Britain we've always made more fuss of a ballad than a blueprint . . . How many schoolchildren dream of becoming great engineers?' ~ Advertisement placed in The Times by the Engineering Council

We make more fuss of ballads than of blueprints --
That's why so many poets end up rich,
While engineers scrape by in cheerless garrets.
Who needs a bridge or dam? Who needs a ditch?

Whereas the person who can write a sonnet
Has got it made. It's always been the way,
For everybody knows that we need poems
And everybody reads them every day.

Yes, life is hard if you choose engineering --
You're sure to need another job as well;
You'll have to plan your projects in the evenings
Instead of going out. It must be hell.

While well-heeled poets ride around in Daimlers,
You'll burn the midnight oil to earn a crust,
With no hope of a status in the Abbey,
With no hope, even, of a modest bust.

No wonder small boys dream of writing couplets
And spurn the bike, the lorry and the train.
There's far too much encouragement of poets --
That's why this country's going down the drain.

~ from Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (Faber & Faber, 1986)

Poets’ Corner (South Transept), Westminster Abbey, London.


I always enjoy Wendy Cope’s wit and humor, but when she discusses engineers and poets, it really hits home. 

Talk about satire and irony. I’ve been married to an engineer for over 40 years and he’s never frequented “cheerless garrets,” nor has he had to “burn the midnight oil to earn a crust.” These scenarios are more in line with my own experience. 🙂

I do find it interesting how poets and writers are revered in England; there are currently about 100 literary types honored in Poets’ Corner, including Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Brontës, Lewis Carroll, Gerard Manley  Hopkins, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Lord Byron. It reads like a who’s who of writers I studied in college. 🙂

10 Most Famous Poets from the UK (can you identify them? Answer below).

Yet, as we well know, in real, more pedestrian life, poets are rarely rich, well-heeled Daimler drivers. Many have primary professions (William Carlos Williams was a physician and Wallace Stevens, an insurance executive) with their literary endeavors as a side hustle. 

We can probably agree that the work of engineers is absolutely essential, as we benefit every day from the fruits of their labor. We wouldn’t have a viable society without those who shape our world with roads, bridges, railways, airports, tunnels, dams, canals, and pipelines.

But I would argue that poetry, which Billy Collins defines as “the history of human emotion,” is just as essential to society. It feeds the soul and tells us the truth. It celebrates what makes us unique as human beings: language.

When Len and I first met in London, he was designing a railroad in Algeria while I was teaching poetry and writing to high schoolers. He confessed he didn’t care all that much for poetry and I knew next to nothing about civil engineering. Still, there was something to the old adage “opposites attract.”

So a right brain words person married a left brain numbers person; he is as intensely logical and practical minded as I am devoted to aesthetics and imagination. We seemed different, yet writing and engineering both require creativity, innovation, dedication, problem solving, and vision. Since we use these skills in different ways, there’s always something new to learn from each other.

Though I’m still not good at math, now I better appreciate engineers, thanks to the many projects Len has worked on over the years. I no longer draw a blank when the Dulles Greenway, Fort McHenry Tunnel, or Elizabeth River Crossings come up in polite conversation. And it’s fun to drive by a certain on-ramp in Herndon knowing Len designed it. 

The Chunnel is a 31-mile railway tunnel between Folkstone and Calais.

As for Poets’ Corner, yes, we visited it together and it was the ultimate literary fix. But equally as exciting was that Len served as a consultant for the Channel Tunnel (Chunnel) joining England and France. I still cannot fathom boring into the earth miles below the sea (how do they know where they’re going under there? how do they keep the ground from collapsing onto them?). 

One of eleven Chunnel boring machines, capable of cutting through anything from hard rock to sand.

The Chunnel was selected as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1996. And get this: when the English and French workmen digging the Chunnel finally met halfway under the English Channel in 1994, the English handed over a plush Paddington Bear to the French as a goodwill offering. (Rumor has it that ever since, Paddington occasionally stows a croissant under his hat in lieu of a marmalade sandwich.)

Chunnel geological profile shows that they bored through a layer of chalk marl.

Engineers do not need a special corner in Westminster Abbey. Each time we gaze at the Eiffel Tower, drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, ride to the top of the Empire State Building, or if we’re lucky enough, attend a concert at the Sydney Opera House, we’re reminded of the marvels they’ve created. Their works are their monuments.

As for writers, we’ll continue to scrape by in cheerless garrets if need be. I don’t know of a single poet whose primary motivation for writing is money, and only a few, if any, seem to be rolling in it.

Sometimes I think it would be nice to live in times past when poets were rock stars (hello, Homer, Virgil, Sappho, Medieval troubadors, Shakespeare), and it’s fun to imagine Cope’s ‘if-only’ inverse world where the pursuit of and love for poetry are the status quo. 

“The Poor Poet” by Carl Spitzweg (1839).

In our modern world, I suppose there’ll always be that belief that a scientific, technological way of thinking is superior to a fanciful, imaginative one. We see where priorities lie with cuts in library spending and arts programs in higher education. I agree with Alan Rickman when he said, “If only life could be a little more tender and art a little more robust.”

There can never be too much encouragement when it comes to poets. I still think we’d be better off with a poet for President.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, my Rolls Royce is outside waiting to take me to the library.

*10 Famous UK Poets: (Top Row) Keats, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Chaucer. (Bottom Row) Donne, Eliot, Blake, Yeats, Byron).


Jan Annino is hosting the Roundup at Bookseed Studio. Prance on over to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up around the blogosphere this week. Have a lovely weekend!

*Copyright © 2023 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

36 thoughts on “dream job: poet or engineer?

  1. Thank you Jama! Without the arts my life would be so boring! But yes, I agree that when you see a building like The Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building, my personal favorite, I am as amazed as when I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or see Hamilton on Broadway! So, I’ve come to the conclusion that we are all artists! Have a great weekend!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your posts are always SUCH an education, Jama> Thank you for all this food for thought. And may there be evermore “encouragement of poets”….

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  3. Wonderful Jama loved this connection between opposites of Engineers and Poets, I agree, I think they can have this magical attraction, especially in the problem solving area which I find fascinating, and the fact that they create such wonders! Thanks for Wendy’s poem and highlighting the British poets including a small handful of women. Love the images and “The Poor Poet.” My husband and I crossed the Chunnel by boat back in 1985, and I’ve crossed the San Francisco bay below via train, and time moves on… Thanks for all! 🥰

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  4. Love Wendy Cope’s poem! You and Len, the poet and the engineer couple, remind me of my parents. My mother was an artist and my father was an engineer. He was as imaginative and creative as my mother and improvised stories about Humpty Dumpty’s wall for me. He would have made a fine writer.

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      1. I only remember him pointing out Humpty’s wall to me. It was conveniently located near his office. And Humpty was always on a coffee break when we went by. 😊

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    1. I would say Len is far more skilled than I am — fixes cars, does some carpentry, electrical work, plumbing, etc. Also a good short order cook. And he doesn’t mind sharing a house with hundreds of teddy bears. How lucky am I? 🙂


  5. Yet another thing we have in common, Jama! My hubs of 30+ years is an engineer, too. (Mechanical, but still.) I think the way poets and engineers approach the world is more alike than it seems at face value. (But the pay is not, for sure!) I love Cope’s poem. What saddened me (but honestly didn’t surprise me) when visiting Poet’s Corner was how few women are there.
    Thank you for another informative and entertaining post – what you do best! 🙂

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    1. Yes, only a few women there. They were all too busy keeping house and raising the children of all the male poets and didn’t have time to write their own poems. Luckily times have changed.


  6. Thanks for my laffing out loud all through the Wendy Cope skillful sarcasm. This is a brilliant post that makes me grateful I too, know talented engineers, tho married to a lawyer, who I intend to read this post to, at supper. I enjoy knowing about your &. your hubby’s experiences & having wheeled myself through DC & environs several times, I’ve likely benefitted from his skills. Your beau tableaus are always a treat, as are your word gifts.

    [ Jama, my favorite Florida bridge of many spectacular ones is a low bridge from mainland to beach at Daytona, where several charrettee idea-generators collected nominees for the colorful Florida animal panels embedded along the Broadway bridge walkways- it has won national awards.]

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  7. Wendy Cope is so good at pointing out ridiculousness!
    I was shocked at how bad I was at recognizing the poets. I thought Yeats looked like Robert Frost and Byron looked like Keats. Donne looks like a Musketeer.
    I, too, am married to an engineer (of the electrical variety). I have learned a lot about circuits and whatnot. He would be the first to say that you need both — art and engineering. I like what John Kennedy said about the arts: “…art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.”

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    1. Love that JFK quote!!! Yes!! I laughed out loud at your comment about Donne resembling a Musketeer and all the rest. 😀 I shall have to ask your advice on my future circuitry questions. Isn’t it amazing how much we learn by osmosis?


  8. I love to imagine that world where poets rule and are adored, though we do have some poets (song writers/musicians) who just might get to drive around their Daimlers! Poets Corner was the one big place we missed visiting on our trip to London. I suppose that means I just have to return for another visit.

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    1. Bob Dylan came to mind when I first read your comment. I imagine he could own as many Daimlers as he wanted. Singer songwriters like him are our modern day troubadours.


  9. Oh Jama, I love that poem, but also love hearing about the start of you and Len, and also about all his works. The chunnel, to me, is an amazing work, as are all the other creations you mentioned. I just read a new picture book this week all about concrete & how the Romans did the colosseum, & other amazing things, then lost the recipe. It was a poetic treatment to engineers: “Concrete” by Larissa Theule. I bet you both would like it! And, yes, a poet for president, for kindness and empathy. Happy Weekend!

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    1. Thanks for the heads up about the Concrete book. It sounds interesting! I wonder about the Roman genius — and also the Egyptians who built the Pyramids. All done without modern equipment.

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  10. Oh, delightful. I have learned to love engineering because Tech Boy WILL watch footage of boring machines, tunneling through mountains in Europe, excitedly point out how the airport in Japan was built, and take me to where in the Netherlands a certain aqueduct was built. I have learned to love a thing I took for granted… I love Wendy Cope’s way of wielding her wit. Wouldn’t it be weird if her worldview came true!?

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    1. Yes, me too — through the years I’ve also gained more appreciation for things I took for granted. Wendy Cope’s worldview coming true — maybe the subject of your next novel? 🙂


  11. Wendy Cope’s reversal of realities made me laugh! Then…WOW! I was bowled over by the fame and expertise of your engineer hubby!

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  12. You might not have imagined chuckles as your audience read this post…but, oh, Jama! You have described my husband and myself to a “T.” We even just visted Poet’s Corner together and as I snapped pics of names…he was awed by how the building is held up. I love this post….so much! Thank you for the spine poetry illustration too!

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    1. So glad you could relate on such a personal level, Linda. That is uncanny that you were just visiting Poet’s Corner. Precisely what it would be like if we visited again. Me, the poets, him, the building/structure, etc.


  13. Wendy Cope’s poem is sly and wonderful and I love it. 😃❤️ And I’m in awe of Len’s work and talent, as I am of yours. You two are the perfect complementary pair!

    Will you swing by in your Rolls to pick me up for that library trip? I’m sure we both have throngs of fans waiting to fall at our feet when we make our entrance.

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    1. LOL — Of course I’ll pick you up!! I’m already getting hand cramps thinking about all the autographs we’ll have to sign, though.


  14. A wonderful post! Love the humor (humour?) in Engineers’ Corner and taking a peek at you and your sweetheart. Wow–he consulted on the chunnel! And the French were met with a gift of Paddington! Why do I put exclamation points for engineering achievements and not a poetic ones? I’ll give you and your rolls an exclamation!

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    1. It’s nice to hear several other PF peeps are married to engineers too — and we seem to have different types covered — mechanical and electrical in addition to civil. You must be proud of your sons — what interesting pursuits!


  15. You’ve really nailed it with this post and today’s poetry selection! So much insight about our society and its “two cultures” to quote a famous phrase about this topic.

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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