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Chapter #20 - What Does It Take To Make A Poet?

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 listed.

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 achievement.

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 common touch.

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 to offer.

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.

Article written by Don J. Carlson. All Rights Reserved

For more information, please contact: Don J. Carlson

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