Let me have another opportunity of years before me and I will not die without being remember’d.

(Keats to Fanny Brawne, March 1820)

Let me have another opportunity of years before me and I will not die without being remember’d.

(Keats to Fanny Brawne, March 1820)

Would you have a look at these poems for me?

The first time I encountered this bold question, I was moved. Of course, I would look at the poems. I was a college teacher. Besides, didn’t I write them myself? Didn’t I understand?

Many poems, many writing groups, many poetry competitions and magazines later, I know how much I did not understand about poetry and the matter of sharing it with a public readership.

It was ‘Frank McBard’ who asked the question, and Frank who began to clarify things. Frank is just one example – because the world has many Franks, young and old, male and female.

Frank was ‘widely published’ long before we met. Later, to his credit, he became aware that his early poetry ‘successes’ were exploitative scams, but this didn’t hold him back.

He had a brief phrase of entering competitions and submitting to national and international magazines. However, he had little success and sensibly decided the returns weren’t worth the outlay. Instead, he attended evening classes (mine among them) to build confidence. To learn. And learn he did. He learned what other poets were doing. They performed in pubs; some printed and sold copies of their work in the local library.

Frank had a better idea (this was before the internet, before computers in homes and libraries). He had sets of poems reproduced in small photocopied booklets and distributed them free. He selected local issues and people – wrote verses especially for them – presented them with these poems as gifts. He demanded press releases about himself from the local paper. Soon he was widely referred to as ‘local poet Frank McBard’. This gave him a sense of satisfaction, although he aspired to more.

McBard’s title as ‘local poet’ was fully deserved. Rarely does a person labour so hard and at such personal cost simply to earn the name of ‘poet’. I have deliberately not commented on his actual poetry – because it is irrelevant. Frank’s outstanding ‘gift’ was for marketing his work. And it mattered to him – mattered enormously – that he should be recognised as a poet.

As for the famous dead poets I grew up idolising – each of them had a touch of Frank; and if they did not, then they co-habited with a Frank substitute who did the work for them. Failing all else they were ‘discovered’ posthumously by an academic McBard who rode to fame on their coat-tails (attention-seeking is not restricted to poets).

The only difference between the great poets and Frank is that superior writing can be marketed in different places. Wordsworth, Plath, Keats, Larkin, MacDiarmid – these writers slaved for their place in the literary canon. They dedicated themselves to selling (metaphorically and literally) their work, often to the detriment of much else in their lives. They combined writing talent with marketing gusto.

Would Frank have come to be locally ‘known’ without his self-marketing ability? I am certain he would not. Would he have become ‘known’ if he was a superb writer with no self-publicising determination? I fear – no. Success in the literary world can only be a reality for those who possess both talents, though not necessarily in equal proportion. Of the two, I am inclined to think the quality of determined attention-seeking the more significant.

All this makes me wonder, especially in the field of poetry, about those writers who do not attempt to publish their work. Where are they? Do they really exist? What has become of their work over the last millennium? And how many of them are women?

McBard, I am not ashamed to admit, inspired me. I saw his efforts and redoubled my own. I was richer than Frank and could buy more stamps and enter more competitions. I had the benefit of an academic education and a life-time study of literature. I knew a fair bit about poetry. And so it began. At first, my work was summarily rejected by a number of outlets. Then the acceptances started. Like Frank, I wasn’t satisfied easily.

And now – what does it all add up to? Several publications later, I am still doing it, as this blog bears witness. For nearly forty years I was the sort of person who wrote poetry in isolation. I spent a great deal of time and effort working on it – and I still think this impulse is quite separate from the instinct to publish. Why would anyone spend three weeks messing about with three words if they were not either dedicated or seriously deluded?

When, inspired by Frank’s efforts, I started the long and costly journey towards publication, I told myself it was about communicating. I told myself it was about art. But it wasn’t. It was simply about getting attention.

The highest honour for any poem is to be remembered and passed on, and for this to continue long after the name of the author is forgotten. The poet is not “an important fellow” as Stevie Smith rightly said. But the poem doesn’t get remembered unless somebody – usually the poet – gets it out there. You can’t aspire to be Anon unless somebody reads, or hears, your words.

I believe the craft – which is what I first cared about – succeeds or fails at home, where the poet is her own most demanding critic. The burning need for attention is another matter.  Without it, there might be no literature.  Without it, the very best of our art would (and perhaps it does) end its life in a back cupboard.


  1. When I first heard that there were agencies who’d send/market poems on one’s behalf, I was amused, but later I realised they provided a potentially useful service. It’s not just that good poets may be bad at marketing – marketing can affect one’s poetry. For example, some people take rejection badly, or adapt their poetry to the market (which might be a good thing).

    Some write well, but judge their work relative to the only poetry they know (the famous stuff) rather than what’s in magazines, and hence don’t market their work. Some are put off by their first exposure to “modern poetry”.

    Then there are those who don’t want their friends/family to read the poetry, though they might be good at marketing.

    I’d like to think that good poets nowadays will find it hard not to get discovered somehow – their works (or at least people’s raving about it) will leak onto the web.

  2. Glad to have that in writing to look over again! I particilarly identify with your final paragraph.

  3. Thank you, Nell, for the wonderfully straightforward facts of life about getting our poetry “out there.”

    I laughed at this: “Why would anyone spend three weeks messing about with three words if they were not either dedicated or seriously deluded?” and decided I was dedicated (of course) and fully accepted that I was an attention-getter, have been for years, overtly and covertly. You’ve led me to welcome, explore and expand both roles, the dedicated poet as well as the attention-seeking marketer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.