What makes a successful poet?

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.

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. 



11 thoughts on “What makes a successful poet?”

  1. When I won the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry in 2014 there was a little glow in my heart for about a year. That’s faded now. Yesterday I took a new poem of mine to a workshop with people in recovery from substance misuse. It’s always risky offering up a poem of your own for scrutiny, especially with people who have no trouble in detecting bullshit; but I’m pleased to say everyone ‘got it’, and that gave me another little glow in the heart.

  2. Thank you so much for this reminder that there are more than one ways to skin a poem and be a poet.

  3. I think the ultimate is someone ‘getting’ your poem so much they learn it by heart. Although the poetry of today’s winners is brilliant, important and completely worthy of success, I can’t imagine this happening to much of it. Thirty years after reading ‘Song for Gwydion’ by R.S.Thomas, I say it to myself every time I am waiting in a fish queue.’From whose chill lips…’ And your poem ‘Book Mark’, dear Nell, which is going to be read at my funeral!

  4. Yes – I measure “success” by others getting it – as many of those recipients are health care professionals then I am always thrilled if they then investigate poetry further …loving this blog so much, thanks for all your hard work

  5. Lizzie, I read this as more than one way to skin a poet — which also true. Though no skinning today, thank goodness…

  6. Success, for me, is in your last three paragraphs, Nell. I’ve no control over whether readers get it, or not, so, these days, concentrate on writing to the best of my ability. I’m curious, so will often experiment, and am often surprised by the direction the poem takes. If it works, that’s a bonus.

  7. The success this blog is talking about is the material success the labour of a poet brings in monetary and publicity terms. My own reponse to the question of what makes a poet successful is the same as Heaney’s on one of his essays in which he tells us that a poet exists first ‘in your own esteem’, in your own mind, and this success is the flip-side to what most in American and British poetry consider to be ‘successful’ in what is essentially a courtier poet model in which the highest ennobling honour one can receive comes not as an inner confirmation from within the poet’s own mind, but some real or metaphorical Sir or Lord and Lady Dame OBE poet who formally announces one’s ‘excellence’ etc at a well attended public event in which the poet is raised socially above others and in this way success comes not from belief within but, as one of the comments above points out, by somebody else telling the poet they are great, giving them some money, and within a year this sugar high has worn off.

    In the old days of Gaelic literature, for 1200 years since the birth of Ogham alphabet in 4-5C and up until the 17C in Ireland, there was a twelve year curriculum that trained the bardic Fili poet in every single aspect of poetry, centered on a seven grade system (foclo, macfirmid, dos, cano, cli, anruth, ollamh), a corpus of 250 prim-scela ‘primary tales’ and 100 fo-scela ‘secondary tales’, with the 250 being the ones it was permissible to write down, and the 100 secondary tales being the ones not allowed to be written down, took on during the final five year phase and passed to the ear of grade six anruth (‘noble stream’) from the final grade ollamh (‘poetry professor’).

    It is only since the internet that the texts associated with this twelve year curriculum, the ones that were actually read by Britain and Ireland’s aristocratic poets have been easily accessible to read online. And though it is a long hard intellectual and creative slog, in a very real way the mark of a successful poet is someone who has reconnected with the learning from this system, that results in a spiritual practise of poetry rather than this focus on measuring ‘success’ purely in monetary and material terms.

  8. I write to perform and not really for the page so I never enter poetry competitions because I wouldn’t have a chance anyway and they usually cost money. Most of my stuff rhymes too. I don’t really like slam poetry competitions as I don’t think poetry should be about competition but I realise that other poets enjoy them a lot. It’s all relative really. What is success? Last year, just after David Bowie’s death, on a flight to Vietnam, we sat next to a Chinese man on his way home from Manchester. We showed him the newspaper photo of Bowie but he had never heard of him or seen his picture before. The poetry world, like the folk music world, (two worlds I am involved in as those are the worlds in which I perform) is small. Very few people on the street could name one poet. So do it for the enjoyment of doing it and your audience’s enjoyment too, however small the audience be it page or stage.

  9. PS And I ought to admit to a little glow at seeing my pamphlet winking at me from the pic. All is vanity, but hey…

  10. This is such an important thing to remember. I like Maitreyabandhu’s 13 Ways of Making Poetry a Spiritual Practice because it helps me to locate what I am doing in a wider ‘life’ sphere. I can’t travel for readings or slams so often feel outside the poetry world. To remember what I do it for – the few people who read my blog or who I send stuff to – that’s the important thing. Apart from that sense of wonder when the poem lies on the palm and breathes a life of its own. Thanks Helena

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