You’ve been writing poetry for a while, perhaps as a student or for your own pleasure and eventually you decided (or been encouraged) to submit somewhere for publication, and with some trepidation, you did. Lo and behold, your poem was accepted for publication and you saw your name in print or on the internet and enjoyed an early recognition, You keep writing and submit more, the first rejections sting but you don’t give up. You revise, reconsider and re-submit. You garner some other acceptances. You join a writer’s group, go to open mics, Make friends in the local poetry community. You expose yourself to all genres and variety of poets and poetry, and at some point for reasons diverse and somewhat mysterious, you find yourself identifying as a poet yourself. But beyond this epiphany, it is interesting to examine what constitutes poetic success, in general, and to you as an individual.
When we try to define this, first for ourselves personally, we can start by asking some simple questions: Have you been published, and if so where? In church bulletins? club newsletters? local newspapers?, alumni publications?, online websites?, anthologies?, blogs? or lit mags? Perhaps you even have a blog yourself. Beyond publication there are other criteria and markers, have you won awards? been quoted? been a featured speaker? hosted a writer’s group? been invited to teach a class or be a contest judge?
None of this addresses the heart of the question, of course, which is whether or not you are writing quality poetry, poetry that opens eyes, touches hearts, arouses, excites and stimulates conversation. And as you assess the success of older experienced poets to gauge what success consists of, you will consider your own opinions and biases. Do you think that Bukowski is profane, Dickinson saccharine, William Carlos Williams simplistic? — and yet though you may have your quarrels with their stylistic characteristic one can’t dispute that they are all “successful poets.” Is that because they have achieved celebrity? Or because they devoted themselves to their craft? Is it because they found their personal audience? And what are the benchmarks that lifted their efforts out of obscurity? No one says, or suggests that you need fame to be a success, in poetry or any other path that you choose, but still it might be interesting and helpful to give some thought to the qualities that would give you the greatest satisfaction in your own work, that would in fact, make you feel that you have achieved some measure of poetic success.
Have you set a goal, or goals for yourself? Will nothing do but to be published in the New Yorker, or do you dismiss the poems they select as obscure and elitist? Do you aspire to win a prestigious contest (and if so, do you regularly enter said contests?) or are you satisfied by creating personalized poems for family and friends? Are you putting together a chapbook? Will you submit it to contests and publishers, or will you self-publish? How many copies would you have to sell to feel validated?
Perhaps more important than any of these obvious but external and superficial indicators, the first and most important confirmation of your value as a poet comes with the satisfaction that you, yourself, feel when a poem that you have written accomplishes exactly what you meant it to. No one can deny the importance of that as a touchstone first and foremost. Still, having said that, this discussion is meant to go further because having a goal in mind (and success IS a goal, isn’t it?) will keep you motivated, on track and productive. With that in mind we would do well to focus on our objectives, whether it is to write daily, to submit frequently, to read poetry, free verse and rhyme, formal and light, biographies of poets, old poetry, new poetry, translations. How can we judge our own success without assessing how and why others have succeeded?
Success itself can be as simple as applause at open mic, or as elusive as publication in Paris Review. This is true in every field of endeavor. it is the nature of mankind to keep score, we do it unwittingly and not only in our judgment of others, but of our own performances, -where we hit our targets and where we fall short. This pursuit of success should not be daunting, but another way to motivate us to improve and raise our own standards.
Sometimes we will undoubtedly measure ourselves against others and fall short, but other times, as we see in sports and other competitions it will be inspiring, just the nudge we need to make it across the finish line.
Frankly, making a living from poetry is a rare accomplishment. Still there are professors of literature, song lyricists and even those who write for greeting card companies. it is not impossible, but also, I think, not a true measure of success.
Success in poetry may be far more elusive than in other fields. It is likely that more than half of Americans could not name the current poet laureate. So if fame is your criteria for success then perhaps you could consider being a fiction writer instead… But if one of your poems causes your audience to laugh out loud, or conversely, moves someone to tears, then you have succeeded. And if sitting down with your pen, and a blank page before you, words tumbling out, into stanzas, rhyme, free verse, cadence and chorus, if that excites and satisfies you then you are already a successful poet.
Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? TrishHopkinson.com is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts.
Kathy Lundy Derengowski is a native of San Diego county. She is an active member and co-facilitator of the Lake San Marcos Writer’s Workshop. Her work has appeared in Summation, the ekphraisis anthology of the Escondido Arts Partnership, California Quarterly, Silver Birch Press, Turtle Light Press and the Journal of Modern Poetry. She has won awards from the California State Poetry Society and been a finalist in the San Diego book Awards poetry chapbook category.