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.