What makes a successful poet?

Or should I put it another way: what makes a poet successful?

One kind of success is marked by competitions and awards. The ten poets who were shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize this year achieved success in terms of public acclaim. Their work was selected, reviewed and will probably be more widely read than the work of most other contemporaries.

On the other hand, only one of them (Jacob Polley) won the entire award, so that was the big success, wasn’t it? He got the twenty thousand quid. He has made it.

Except the money will vanish. There will be another winner next year. And in the meantime Jake has poems to write, and a mass of expectation to live up to. And as Paul Muldoon once said in a Master Class – or at least this is something like what he said – the poet is never a master on writing poems because he has to discover how to write each one all over again. Each new poem demands its own way of writing.

And meanwhile there are all the poets who didn’t win. And all the poets who will never win. What is success for them?

For a long time, publication alone was regarded as the big validation – and despite some successful self-publishers, that idea still carries some weight, though it’s worth bearing in mind that some hundreds of published books will have been entered for the TS Eliot prize compared to the shortlist of ten. These were all books that by virtue of publication had achieved some success. Just not not TS-Eliot-prize-shortlist success.

When I was at primary school I was quite good at sprinting but Helen Booth always beat me, no matter how hard I tried. And I was not bad at swimming but Barbara Longbottom was miles better. When I got to secondary school, I got into the tennis team, but only into the third reserve for doubles. And as for hockey, I was in the team because I reliably turned up for practice. The PE teacher once called me (how we remember these things for a life-time) ‘the fly in the ointment’.

Why does life train us to value winning so much? It is a mixed blessing. I went to a children’s party and watched a game with prizes. The kids were very little – just beginning the party game experience. When little Betty or Bobby won the prize, all the other wee ones bawled (or wept, if you read last week’s blog). When they grow up, they will learn to conceal those tears.

What would life be like if we were not competitive? What would poetry be like? How would we find what we want and need to read if there was no process of selection, no concept of a ‘successful’ book?

In Anne Stevenson’s poem ‘Making Poetry’, which I commend to you, she talks about the ‘siren hiss’ of ‘success, success, success’: 

And what’s ‘to make’?

To be and to become words’ passing
weather; to serve a girl on terrible
terms, embark on voyages over voices,
evade the ego-hill, the misery-well,
the siren hiss of publish, success, publish,
success, success, success.

So there it is – the downside of success, the huge lure and danger of ‘the ego-hill’ and, on the other side, ‘the misery-well’ – and this is from a poet who has won many prizes.

It is wonderful to win. It’s wonderful when your friends win. But the feeling of elation doesn’t last long. And only a very few people win the big prizes. Some excellent poets will never win. Does that mean they aren’t ‘successful’?

Well, there is a different kind of success. If you’re a practising poet, you’ll know it. You know it when you find it. And it’s not impossible to find though it isn’t an everyday experience by any means.

It’s when some piece of poetry you have made, by some miracle, seems to work, and at the same time to do something you didn’t expect. It surprises you. In some cases, the surprise amounts to astonishment. It’s almost as if somebody else had written it.

And if on top of that, someone else reads it and ‘gets it’ – oh boy. You’ve scored.

full colour photo of a line of pamphlets standing up on Nell's dining room table (but you can't tell it's a table). All colours: cream, yellow, pink, orange, green, and one lovely full colour design involving deer and trees and animals. 




When I was young poetry festivals didn’t exist.

After several days at StAnza last week, talking and listening, and reading and milling around, and the lovely subsequent ripples through blogs, FaceBook, Twitter, and so on, it’s hard to believe. The late twentieth and twenty-first century so far have seen horrendous wars, and they continue. But also there have been festivals. More and more of them.

When did arts festivals start? In 1969, there were distant reverberations about something called ‘Woodstock’. I was 16, and it had nothing to do with me. There was a record. There were hippies. It was music. There was flower power. All somewhere else. But the word ‘festival’ seeped through, and nothing to do with church and harvests.

Meanwhile, there was poetry in books. The books were dusty and lovely and usually second-hand. There were also the verses I was scribbling in secret and alone. The only person I talked to about poetry was my mother, when she was ironing. We did some poetry at school too. Poets were dead, male and we had to learn how to read them properly, like it or lump it.

The first festival experience for me was sitting at the back of poetry events in the Edinburgh Book Festival, which did not then have ‘International’ in its title. That was the late 1990s and the festival had already been going since 1983. But the tents in Charlotte Square were flimsy, buffeted by the wind. And it was weirdly intense and (for me) alienating. Nobody talked in the audience, unless they arrived with a friend. We waited in hushed silence for the poets to arrive and do their hallowed thing. If you asked a question after a reading, you had to muster every scrap of courage. I went away and wrote this (unsurprisingly unpublished):

Invitation to EBF:

join the ranks of the seriously in tents

depending on which session you select, you will
have a chance of being intellectual

please wear glasses, smoke intelligently,
make literary asides, listen intently

bring a small baby wearing a Next hat
and pretend not to notice when it starts
bawling save me save me mummy from these boring old farts!

The year of that poem (1997) was the first year of Ledbury, and around this time, Brian Johnstone and Anna Crowe in St Andrews were talking about starting something, the whisperings of early StAnza. The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, Michael Laskey’s inspired idea, had already been going since 1988 – but I had never heard of it. And 1997 – that was the year Ledbury started. So something was in the air. It was still nothing to do with me.

Changed times. I go to poetry festivals now when I can. I go gladly, and particularly gladly and easily to my local fest, StAnza, which is only 20 miles away. There is a festival lecture each year – some aspect of poetry. Last week it was Glyn Maxwell on ‘the stanza’. His talk was funny, and delivered to a friendly, laughing audience who knew their onions (and their stanzas) and, usefully, the nursery rhyme ‘Who killed cock robin?’, around which the lecture was built. These days poetry matters don’t have to be intense, or obscurely intellectual, and the people in the audiences chat while they’re waiting, when they’re leaving, and hurl questions into the air with confidence. Some of them (thank you, Peter Jarvis, for one of the best moments) even sing.

Six years ago the StAnza guest lecturer was Jay Parini, once a student himself in St Andrews. He recalled 1968, when the English Professor was Alec Falconer. In the StAnza lecture 2009, he described how ‘contemporary poetry was not welcome in the house of Falconer’. In fact the good Professor told him ‘We do not need people writing more poetry. There is quite enough already.’

There are still those who agree with Professor Falconer. But happily not at StAnza, which manages, in its conversations, its asides, and its poets, to reach into the excitement of what is happening right now in whatever ‘poetry’ is or may be – such a range of styles, cultures, nations and continents! – while hanging onto its roots, its traditions, its firm footings and connections.

You don’t need me to tell you that poetry festivals are more than the programmed events. Aldeburgh, of course. StAnza. Ledbury. And newer ones: festivals or mini-fests at Newcastle, Reading, Wenlock, Bridlington, Derwent (at Matlock Bath), Cheltenham, Dundee, Arran, Stratford-upon-Avon, Wells-on-the-Sea, Trumpton (I made the last one up). And of course others, the ones I haven’t heard or remembered to mention.

A festival’s success can be measured by the buzz. It’s a buzz of voices in corridors, in cafes, on the streets, walking down the beach. It’s people mingling and talking and anybody can talk to anybody because it’s a shared and welcoming and equal experience. And so I heard Anne Stevenson (the American poet who has lived most of her life in the UK) telling someone about her long-standing friendship with Jay Parini; and someone else was chatting to my left with Carolyn Forché; and someone else was introducing Alice Notley; and Paul Durcan was at the coffee bar; and lots of faces, familiar and unfamiliar were laughing and joking or – in some of the events – concentrating in absolute silence. People of all ages. People you’ve heard of. People who could be anybody. People you think you might recognise but aren’t sure. Your cousin. Your next door neighbour. Directors of international festivals. Students. Poets. Un-poets. Readers. Groupies. Tourists. People buzzing. People scribbling. People doing that thing Anne Stevenson evoked in her reading of Making Poetry, (and that Fiona Moore later picked up in her blog): ‘inhabiting’ poetry.

It wasn’t always so. Here’s more of Jay Parini, remembering:

‘I joined the Poetry Society in my first term in St. Andrews, and – to my dismay – found it less than flourishing. We met once or twice a month that term, often in the bar of the Cross Keys, and would read poems to each other – our own poems. . . . Alastair Reid sometimes met with us, and encouraged us. There was another poet in the town, Evangeline Paterson, whose husband John Paterson was a lecturer in Geography. We often met at Evangeline’s purple-tinted house – everything was some shade of that royal color, even the toilet – and we drank cups of instant coffee or tea and ate biscuits and recited our poems to each other. These gatherings might last for three or four hours, and that, for me, was poetry in St. Andrews.’

Evangeline Paterson (I never met her though I feel as though I have) was mentioned by someone else this year in one of the StAnza events – I can’t remember who. And there is still a Cross Keys. The connections don’t vanish: it is a sort of relay race in which each of us, at some point, takes up the baton. 

Only yesterday it was 1973, when Jay Parini and some St Andrews university friends: ‘got some backing from local friends of poetry and from the university itself’ and held a little festival in Lower College Hall over two or three days. ‘The main readers were Seamus Heaney, who had just published Wintering Out and read widely from that collection, Alastair Reid (of course), George MacBeth, and Ian Crichton Smith, who was at the time a schoolmaster near Glasgow, and a poet of considerable fame in Scottish circles.’

And so Parini

‘began to write poems seriously, and to study poetry in a systematic way, often at length with Tony Ashe, Alastair, and Anne Stevenson. On a Sunday I would take a train to Glasgow to attend a seminar that Philip Hobsbaum would hold with Anne Stevenson in their spacious sitting room. These were vigorous evenings, and poets would read their work and be subjected to fierce scrutiny [. . . . ] The rigorous attention given to texts by the critics carried over nicely into a writing seminar. Everyone spoke bluntly about what they saw or heard in a poem. The focus on language was nothing short of ferocious.

And then suddenly there I was in 2015 chatting to poet Gerry Cambridge, who interviewed and worked with and knew Philip Hobsbaum in his later years, and whose journal, The Dark Horse celebrates its twentieth year this June. Twenty years! Where has the time gone? How can this be? We’re turning into history as we speak.

And as for the ferocity, it’s still with us. There is a kind of ferocity that’s friendly and fun. And anybody can join in. The Simon Armitage masterclass at this year’s StAnza bore witness to it.

A ‘masterclass’ sounds off-putting, I always think, like you have to be an expert to ‘get it’. Or at the very least a poet. But no. It isn’t so. It can simply be about reading and making connections, and our pleasure in that process. The good festival buzz invades everything, and the buzz makes you feel part of it, and unafraid. The buzz grows out of excitement about language and its possibilities. The buzz is about being human and having these amazing things – words – readily on hand and available to play with. And free. The buzz is the antithesis of war and hostility. It is friendship. It is welcoming. It is loud and quiet. It is inspiring and courageous and international. It explains why ordinary people come to poetry festivals in increasing numbers and why such astonishing, life-affirming events are, and should continue to be, funded.


[The photograph below is from June 6, 1983, the Pushkin Poetry Festival, drawn from the “RIAN archive 100588 All-Union Pushkin Poetry Festival” by RIA Novosti archive, image #100588 / Rudolf Kucherov / CC-BY-SA 3.0. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]