A poet is created by the application of effort,
intelligence, heart, soul, and persistence. A poetic
reputation depends upon these as well as advertising and
sales skills and getting through to the readers who count.
Beside these features an array of other factors could be
A poet probably has to read and write a lot to achieve
any kind of recognition whether faithful readership, honors,
fame or wealth. Intelligence and heart are both essential.
One is usually in excess of the other and that is ok. It is a
great advantage to have both in balance, and even more to
have both in abundance.
Persistence is necessary if you would excel. The old
academic adage, publish or die is equally true for poets.
This is not to be taken as a pun on those poets who achieve
fame from their self destructive lives. Marketing is of value to
a poet, but often is, at least partially, supplied by someone
else. Few poets are expert at marketing their own work
without help. Those who have a talent for marketing are
much more likely to be noticed than those who don't. Selling
your poetic work and services is the most likely way to a
career in poetry, even a modest career.
The readers who count are not the same readers for
each poet. Poetry, like other arts, is a niche market. It is not
a matter of reaching the market but your market. Those who
read some other type of poetry may not be interested in your
poetry. They may not be necessary to your success and
i. What Makes a Good Poet?
A good poet may be good as in skilled or good as in
highly moral. Each reader has a preference for one of these.
If your highest priority is skill, you will rate morality lower
than skill and vice versa. These, too, are better when in
abundance and balance. Most people respect both. But
none of the other characteristics such as success are a
necessary result of either skill or morality. Elbert Hubbard's
morality and inspiration does not often appeal to those who
like Ezra Pound, and Pound's immense intellect is no
softener of his sterility to those who love Hubbard. There are
of course few who respect one who will see any value at all
in the other. They are worlds apart, while William Blake may
appeal to those who like either of the others.
ii. What Makes a Popular Poet?
Popularity does not depend much on how skilled or
moral a poet is. Faking skill or morality is equally difficult,
except to fool people who are less discriminating in their
analysis of one or the other. Some poets do not care about
extreme popularity as much as for truth to what they call
their vision. And vision is more related to content and moral
issues than to technique or skill. Some poets are more
interested in exercising their skill than in seeking to please
readers. This is certainly ok. Exercise of sheer skill is a
great pleasure to those who are able to do so. This is as
true of poets as of trapeze artists. The ability to come up
with immediate rhymes is as fulfilling to some people as
more complex poetic skills are to others.
Idealistic preference for either content or technique
tends to make for excellence in the given aspect of poetry,
but not for popularity except within a smaller audience of
aficionados. Popularity is achieved more commonly by not
writing over the head of anybody. Yet, many people scoff at
the popularity of Hemingway or Poe who both had a
iii. What Makes the Poet a Showman?
Another aspect of any art is showmanship. People
with a talent for showmanship get a lot more mileage out of
a little effort than anyone else can. Diversions are provided
best by those who can divert attention from mundane life to
something more entertaining. The value of diversions is
recognized well by television producers who tease the
viewer with promises of entertainment later in the show to
get them to bear with an otherwise boring show. This is the
cliff hanger technique taken from old radio serials. True
showmanship does not tease, but delivers. A real showman
keeps the reader's attention through the whole poem or
book and ends as well as he started. A showman can be
deceptive like P.T. Barnum who said, "There's a sucker born
every minute." A showman can also be as skilled as
Michelangelo, or have the finesse of Jackie Kennedy-
Onassis. Great showmen (and women) of our day include
flashy personalities like Garth Brooks, Garrison Keillor and
Dolly Parton. In poetry, such personal appeal was
possessed by Homer, Robert Burns, Dylan Thomas and
Edgar Allen Poe.
iv. What Makes a Wealthy Poet?
A poet could be born wealthy or earn wealth through
a stroke of fate. Mark Van Doren won on a quiz show that
brought him both fame and wealth. It was a boost to his
poetry and reputation. Walt Whitman earned his wealth from
sales of Leaves of Grass after it was banned There are TV
shows today with large audiences who are inclined to buy
books endorsed by the star. The star of such a show has a
staff to screen the numerous requests for endorsements.
One who gets such an endorsement can quickly sell a lot of
books and equally quickly be forgotten if he does not
continue to ply his trade or have something of lasting value
Poets seldom become wealthy, but may achieve
modest comforts through writing poetry, lecturing and other
writing, which often pays more than poetry. Carl Sandburg
achieved honors for his writing and was prosperous in his
late life due to the honors and a lot of work at his craft. He
gained much respect from scholars, and therefore sales to
libraries, for his lengthy volumes on Abraham Lincoln.
v. What Makes a Loved Poet?
Poets are loved when they bring honor to their
homeland or neighborhood. This is as much a function of
their private loyalties as of their fame. Poets who have been
loved greatly include Burns, Poe and Dylan Thomas. People
who love a poet will allow no disrespect of their heroes.
Poets are also loved when they say things people have
longed to hear. Poets generally are loved more than
rewarded with wealth. They are commonly loved in respect
for their rejection of the more ostentatious trappings of fame.
Sometimes they are loved because of what they do rather
than what they write. The poet is the doer.
vi. How Does a Poet Achieve Respect?
Respect for a poet may come out of admiration of the
person and acceptance therefore of the poetry. It may pay
tribute to the poet's skill in communication or in earning
honors or acceptance of famous people. Wealthy or
respected patrons may promote the poet. Most likely respect
will be the result of honors among peers in the arts.
vii. Whence Fame and Greatness?
Fame can come from many sources. Shakespeare
said of greatness: "Be not afraid of greatness; some are
born great, some achieve greatness, and others have
greatness thrust upon them." Fame and greatness may not
be precisely the same, but this statement is equally true of
fame. Fame can come from being born in a famous family or
from achievement or accident.
A poet may achieve fame through education, from
being born in the right place or having a timely message. It
may come through charisma or intelligence or from a knack
with words. Fame is fairly unpredictable: it can be sought
through effort, but is more likely to come as a surprise.
Homer was among the most famous poets of his day
and in great demand among wealthy patrons to recite his
extensive repertoire. Most poets who are included in school
literature textbooks were famous at one time, although that
fame was often fleeting. Some poets rise and fall in their
acclaim over time. If you were to check out a book of the
best known writers of each decade of the twentieth century,
you would find that some of the lesser lights of earlier
decades rose in esteem in the literary world and some of the
believed greatest lost their appeal with the passage of time.
This is even more dramatically demonstrated if you
find an anthology from each century since the invention of
the printing press. I have a book at my desk of the one
hundred best American poems from 1905. There are many
recognizable names but also many I have never heard.
Anyone who achieved any fame since 1905 would have to
replace one of the earlier ones, to be included; and that kind
of sorting goes on all the time.
They know more
Than they have ever understood,
And speak at length
About what they have never
Known in depth.
They know how to intimidate,
But not how to live.
Don J Carlson 2000
viii. Write Your Own Perscription
It is possible to pick among the characteristics that
are important to you and make yourself a prescription for
what kind of poet you want to be. Do not allow yourself to be
intimidated by people who would have all poetry fit their
private preferences whether they are famous or highly
educated or just poetic bullies.
If you prefer to be a moralist poet, let it be. If skill is
your great dream, go for it. If you want to be loved, you will
find a way. If you are determined to be a great poet, it is
possible. Wealth, respect and popularity are all achievable
if they are your driving desire. You may want to remember
that all these things are secondary to most poets. They write
because they feel they must.
Your supplies are your own life and writing skills.
Don't be deterred by professors and Pharisees. Don't learn
primarily from them unless you aspire to be one. Read the
poems you like; and learn first hand. But also learn from
those who will take the time to teach you. Education stands
alongside and just below living as a teacher of poetry.
Watch, listen, live; and write what you know.