career in poetry

Many poets dream of the time when they can really get down to writing, without the need to put food on the table and create a name for themselves in their day-to-day jobs and local community. Why not become a career poet, turning out collections regularly from prestigious presses, and taking a recognized part in conferences, courses and workshops?

Some hundreds of poets do that, becoming writers in residence at universities, or accredited workshop conveners at writing colleges or community centres. My own experience as organizer of various poetry readings, workshops and writing groups, and as one-time Chairman of the UK's longest-running poetry-writing circle gives me reservations about poetry as a career, but others see the matter very differently.

Career Paths

Poetry may not be a profession, but it still has its recognized career paths. Most of us could, at a pinch, become qualified in the law or some branch of engineering by extended private study, but it's doubtful that companies would queue up to employ our services. We'd have no reputation, or professional body to fall back on. We'd be the wrong age, have noncomformist attitudes, and probably lack the contacts that are so necessary to the professions. In short, we'd not be or look the part.

Engineers invariably look like engineers, and lawyers are a particular breed, which training, personality and association weld into equally recognizable types. Sit in a crowded cafeteria. If you can't pick out the various types in the groups around you, then give up all hope of becoming a novelist or playwright. You don't have that vital curiosity about people, and no writing course is going to make good the deficit. Similarly distinctive are poets. Poetry was, is, and always will be an an essential part of their lives, whatever the cost, however financially or socially unrewarding. They spend their last penny on poetry collections, and can remember precisely when they encountered an author later important to them.

Note the unquenchable interest, contacts and background. Professional poets make careers for themselves in one or more of the following ways:

1. Take a Master of Fine Arts degree, and become a writer in residence etc. at some recognized university or college of further education.

2. Follow a university English course by a Ph.D., but spend much of their time writing and associating with poets, promoting their work and being promoted in turn.

3. Become officers of poetry institutions, again hobnobbing with poets and becoming part of the publicity machine.

4. Teach in English faculties, many of which run a poetry magazine publishing important names.

5. Work in a publishing house, particularly those few that bring out poetry collections or literary novels.

6. Join the poetry performing circuit, building up a loyal public and issuing collections of their popular numbers.

The drawbacks? Two seem particularly dangerous. One is the need to publish collections at regular intervals, regardless of quality, simply to prove credentials. The second is the ease with which literary activities can substitute for the real thing, which is writing. Everything is easier than writing poetry, or poetry that's any good, and perhaps only the most uncompromising (and sometimes difficult) characters survive the temptation.

The references below, and pages on current difficulties and poetry renaissance, add some substance to these notes, which are now followed by sections that earlier appeared on PoetryMagic.

Starting the Poem

What subject makes a good poem? Anything and everything, is the usual answer. But thatís not very helpful, and not always true. Find something that inspires you? Yes, if you can, and you should, but you can't depend on inspiration. Most poems are unremitting hard work, where the appetite grows only slowly with eating. Here is an approach that may be helpful.

Think of the blank page is a canvas. Unless you're an abstract painter, you have two struggles on your hands — depicting what you see, and recreating something within your chosen medium. Re-creating is the key word. You cannot show everything, and must therefore select. You cannot simply make a faithful copy — the medium prevents that, even in photography — and you must therefore render the scene through and with the medium you have chosen. But then comes a difficulty. Once the rendering starts, the painting begins to impose its own rules. Balance, composition, perspective, colour used to denote form, for tonal harmony, expressive power, and a dozen other matters jostle for attention. As the painting progresses these considerations have slowly to be brought together and resolved. And not only does the painting restrict what can be depicted or added, it also changes how you view the scene, and the inner vision that prompted you to paint in the first place. Painting is inescapably an evolving dialogue, between your imaginative conjectures, and the opportunities/restrictions that the medium provides.

Poetry is no different. The medium seems less a struggle because we use words without thinking in everyday life, but poetry requires words to be used in special ways. Replacing the rules of painting we have the elements of rhythm, imagery, diction, metre, stanza shaping, and so on. Words and phrases are not casually given, moreover, but have to be worked for, by thinking and observing acutely. What we add alters what's been written so far, and therefore opens up and closes down various opportunities. How we write determines what we say. Soon the original inspiration is overtaken by other considerations, and we must either rescue it, or go with the flow of the new work.

The notes below suggest various ways of starting a poem. The process is not linear, but reverts continually to earlier stages through selection, combination and re-creation. Develop your own methods of working.


1. Poets vary widely in their starting methods. Traditionalists commonly need a haunting line or phrase to get them going. Free-verse writers jot down line fragments that introduce their theme. Very experienced writers may plan the whole poem in outline, rather as the old masters created cartoons. Do what seems natural to you, and donít throw away the early jottings.

2. Professional writers are magpies, snappers up of trifles. They keep notebooks, cuttings, jottings, selections from authors new to them. Do the same.

3. Poems that move an audience must also be powerfully meaningful to their originators. Start something you really want to express, and keep at it. You will learn more from failures than successes.

4. Successful poems are written from a personality in balance with others, and particularly raw experiences may be best left until they can be considered in reflection.

5. Is your poem really necessary? The commonplace themes of poetry — love, passage of seasons, bereavement — have been tackled so often that only the greatest writers have something fresh to say. Think of your composition as an article to a local magazine. Would people want to read it? Does it address matters that interest them? In a sharp, engaging, informative way?

6. Write as you can, when you can. Inspiration comes to those who help themselves by setting regular hours and targets.


You've produced a substantial body of work, and now you'd like to find a poetry publisher. What are the best ways of doing so?

What do expect to achieve by publishing? Money, literary prestige, recognition in the eyes of colleagues, family and friends? To publish regularly calls for determination, resourcefulness, contacts and a rather thick hide. The process takes time and effort, much more than is commonly imagined, more sometimes than the original writing itself. You can discount money: no one makes money out of poetry. Don't be too optimistic about literary prestige. That will come, if comes at all, towards the end of a literary career, after a long apprenticeship in the hardships and disappointments that every serious writer encounters. You want recognition? That's very understandable, but the only reputation worth having is that of people whom you yourself admire, which may take a battering when you understand the literary world better. Still want to proceed? These are the options, in increasing order of time and effort.

1. Join a local poetry group and publish in their occasional anthology.

2. Submit to the many ezines springing up on the Internet, and disappearing as fast again.

3. Submit to one of the long-established small poetry or literary magazines.

4. Self-publish an anthology of your work.

5. Run your own magazine or literary website.

6. Bring out a collection with a reputable publisher.


1. Most publishing opportunities come through literary associations and networking. Don't simply join writing and poetry clubs, but make yourself a hardworking and popular member.

2. Study the market. Make especially sure your poems are the sort published by the magazines you submit to, and follow the submission guidelines.

3. Maintain a sensible balance between your own work and peripheral activities. Don't underestimate the work involved in editing a collection, adjudicating a competition, or — most of all — running your own magazine or website.

4. Don't entertain extravagant notions of sales. Poetry collections are difficult to sell, especially to fellow poets.

5. Don't submit your collection to a prestigious publisher until you have built up a decent reputation in the better-known literary magazines.

6. Remember that the book trade can still be amateur, especially in impoverished areas like poetry. Keep copies of everything sent. Allow a few months before sending the polite follow-up. Be systematic in submissions, making them one of the regular chores of writing. Treasure your successes, but don't expect all doors to open thereafter.

7. Take your time, submitting when you're fully satisfied that you cannot improve on the work. You're not turning out blockbuster fiction to survive, and quantity is not a substitute for quality.


Spoken poetry was poetry for a long time. Poetry as words on a page is a comparatively recent development, and some of the world's greatest literature originated in recitation handed down by word of mouth. That tradition has hardly survived in the English-speaking world, and performing poetry now means a) slam poetry integrated with improvisation and music as a type of performing art, and b) the reading of poetry out aloud in classroom, workshop or poetry reading.

The two conceptions are not radically different, and the element of performance governs both. Primarily they are theatre, where the artist engages directly with the audience, and both require an outgoing personality and skills that cannot be learnt from books or the Internet. Practice is essential, and the besetting sin of those who read their work in public is to suppose that clarity and a pleasant delivery are all that is required.

In fact the skills needed to perform poetry are as taxing as those required to write it, and it can be astonishing to hear what a trained voice can do with a very indifferent piece. Academia bases its assessment on the written word, and many poets dislike a professional polish being given to their productions. Slickness and staginess are the usual complaints, but the truth may be professional jealousy: the spotlight shifts from the writer to the performer.

Important considerations lie behind this matter. There is poetry of the greatest refinement that does not come across in readings, and there is poetry deservedly popular in performance that looks crass and bombastic on the page. How these two aspects are to be balanced — dramatic intensity versus quiet integrity — is for the practising poet to decide. Experience is needed in both directions, just a good playwrights have usually trod the boards for a time. The suggestions below are aimed at poets who must occasionally read their works in public, and the essential message is practise, practise, practise.


1. Learn the basics of the actor's trade: relaxation, breath control, articulation, voice projection and modulation. Do this as a positive daily workout if you're on the poetry circuit, not as a chore left to the night before.

2. Rehearse the performance so thoroughly that the actual reading seems habitual and natural.

3. Entertain. Be genuinely friendly to the audience. Address them directly. Secure attention. Play to their responses.

4. Memorize the pieces sufficiently so that only the odd glance at the script is necessary.

5. Leave nothing to chance. Check lectern, microphone, space on the stage, how you make your entrance, place your script, etc.

6. Know where you are on the evening's list of readers, and arrange your pieces accordingly. You'll feel easier, and so will they.

7. Anticipate interjections and problems; prepare handy responses.

8. Enjoy yourself. Have a good time, and the audience will too.


How do you get yourself so well known that people will demand your work — editors, workshop conveners and the public? How is a reputation built, and sustained?

One good way is through poetry contests, for which there are no great secrets to winning, though of course you'll need to research guidelines, previous winners and adjudicators. First prize in a competition, or glowing review in a small magazine, does not usually bring in the commissions, appearances or sales, however, and publicizing yourself commonly takes as much effort as writing the poetry. Don't neglect it. Publicity is not success, but it does create the time, opportunity and encouragement to write better. Enjoy but don't be fooled by the the hype of publishers and critics. Keep your real work as something apart, which is fed but not overwhelmed by the notice it receives.

Your literary personality is what you create through your better writing, so make sure you understand what you're doing and can argue for it.


Some specific suggestions:

1. Be distinctive. Do what other currently popular poets are doing, but do it better and in your own particular way. The work should carry your hallmark, be something that only you could have pulled off.

2. Do something outrageous. Buck the trend in ways useful to media journalists needing the good story. Feed the interviewer with the elements of an unusual persona or literary personality. Keep polecats; advise the UN on Third World agricultural developments; become a lap-dancer.

3. Network. Most opportunities come through associations, contacts and personal recommendations. Remember favours, and don't let your sponsors down.

4. Become an active member of literary societies, poetry workshops, reading groups, etc. It's usually the small minority who take on the lion's share of the work: make sure you're one of them.

5. Help fellow writers. The arts are a competitive business, and kindnesses may not be returned, but ruthlessness is not admired. Authors are generally remembered far longer than their productions.

6. Don't provide criticism unless a) it is actually requested, b) the request is genuine and not a desire for compliments, c) you can say something positive about most of the work, and d) you can show what needs to be done in the offending passages. In general — don't.

7. Be modest, but not a shrinking violet. Accept if you're asked to appear on local radio or chair a discussion group, and work hard to make a success of it.

8. Be professional and accommodating. 'Unpublished poems under 40 lines in length' doesn't mean "a bit over 60 lines but you can cut it down". Nor do editors enjoy having a constant stream of amendments as the deadline approaches. If you can't contemplate editorial "improvements" being made, then withdraw the piece or send alternatives.

9. Find out what is wanted: when, where and in what form. Magazines are not haphazard collections of poems, but a structured arrangement of work the editor wishes to commend to the public. Your submission may be the greatest poem of the century, but if style, subject and timing are wrong then the rejection slip will surely follow. Magazines may keep your submission for forthcoming issues, but many are fully stocked for months or years ahead.

10. Understand the media, and stay in front. Since this year's hot topics are stale by next, you must be continually recreating your image while steadily improving the work.

11. Be methodical and consistent. Don't expect overnight recognition, but do work to a clear campaign. That, at least, is within your control.

Writing Courses

Classes vary enormously. Most are excellent, though some still exist to give employment to hopeless writers. If a particular class is included in your course of study, then you're stuck with it. But if you have some choice in the matter, and particularly if you're footing the bill, try to evaluate by:

1. Asking for testimonials, and following these up.

2. Looking carefully at the reading lists supplied. From these the level and aspirations of the course should be apparent.

3. Reading the published work of the class tutor. First-class tutors do not necessarily write well themselves, but you will not be happy under someone whose output you positively despise.

Writing Cycle

One question is often asked in poetry courses: is there some cycle to writing? Can the process be standardized, or made more efficient?

The answer is yes, up to a point. Poets keep files of poems in various stages of construction, and work on them as circumstances permit. The various stages call on very different skills, moreover, and a working session often sees several poems being attended to at the same time.

Professional writers soon learn the elements of construction, indeed must to survive in a very competitive market. The slant, number of words, diction suitable for the intended audience, quotes required, references for further reading — all these will be have been set by the publication in question, and the writer's task is simply to gather material and then shape it.

Not so poetry. Poems grow much more haphazardly: in odd directions, by fits and starts, never to foreseen conclusions or any conclusions at all. Many, probably the great majority, are never accepted by reputable magazines and simply have to be aired in poetry groups and then filed for attention years later.

There are nonetheless strategies to make best use of your time. The stages below do not need to be followed mechanically, and there are poems that spring almost perfect from first putting pen to paper. But first blooms are rarities, and may be no better than the products of prolonged toil, in which art has concealed art. You need to develop your own working methods.


1. First comes a theme, which may be anything from a few words to a fleshed-out plan. Belonging to this stage are jottings, detailed notes, references to poems similar in shape or content. Also a long, hard look at the chances of success. Poets are not paid on an hourly basis, so that time lavished on one thing is time stolen from something else.

2. First draft. Here the poem takes shape. Content will be worked out: what the poem says and how. Verse type, rhyme scheme and stanza patterning will have been decided, and in overall shape the poem is looking like its final version.

3. Crafting. Now the draft is taken apart. Commercial writing omits this stage because there isn't the time, and such writing is anyway constructed in various stereotypes and phraseologies. Poetry is written with the deepest attention to language, however, and each shift in imagery, metaphor, verse style, word choice brings changes throughout the poem.

4. Evaluation. Stages 1 - 3 above, which are commonly repeated, give what has now to be critiqued. The poem is analyzed from various viewpoints — New Critics, Freudian / Jungian, mythological, stylistic, rhetorical, metaphorical, Postmodernist traits, and so forth. Some of these methods are evaluative; others simply reveal the poem's depth, understanding and interest. Objectivity is important, and ideally the critiques should be carried out with the help of sympathetic but astute critics in workshops and poetry circles.

5. Polishing. The poem, together with its originating notes and comments, is now put away, generally for some weeks or months. It is then read with fresh eyes, and anything less than excellent is immediately marked for attention. Changes and improvements are made, and the piece again put away for rereading later. When this process no longer brings changes, the piece is ready for publication. Note the time interval: most poets find it very unwise to make large changes immediately before publication.

6. Submitting for publication. Many poems are first printed in small magazines, which helps generate interest and reputation. The appropriate magazines need to be selected carefully, and their guides for submission adhered to.

7. Publicizing. Most poetry gets known through networking, attending poetry groups and readings, serving on committees, writing reviews, helping to edit anthologies, etc. Publicizing your work is an essential but commonly overlooked aspect of the poetry writing business.


Any writing that is true to your personality, authentic and original, is apt to begin as dark poetry. How do you generate these qualities, and then develop them?

The author's personality is always to be found in a good poem: it is something that only he or she could have produced. But we also expect that the personality will facilitate and further the poem's intentions. The authentic is that individual voice, unquestionably theirs, which genuine artists find as they seek to represent what is increasingly important to them. Originality does not mean novelty — which is easily achieved — but the means by which experience is presented in a more distinctive and significant manner.

Personality, authenticity and originality are therefore linked, and achieved only by continual effort. Gifts and character make artists, and the two are interdependent.


As in life generally, success comes at a price. The creators of dark poetry are often: 1. indifferent to conventional procedures and behaviour, 2. inner-directed, making and following their own goals, and 3. keenly interested in contradictions and challenges.

Better poets can therefore find themselves at odds with society, and there is no doubt that such conflicts make for solitary, cross-grained and somewhat unbalanced personalities. Many past writers had difficult and neurotic personalities, and the same traits are all too evident today. Nonetheless, absurd posturing, sharp feuds and strident ambitions also appear in writers of no talent whatever, which suggests that difficulties are the unfortunate side affects of originality and not its sustaining force. Artists may be sometimes unbalanced, but not all unbalanced people are artists.

Creativity differs markedly between the arts and sciences, and even between different art forms. Nonetheless, most creativity shows four phases: challenge, incubation, illumination and exposition. Driving these phases forward, through many interruptions and loopbacks, is the earnest desire to succeed, which naturally taps some inner need. We make poetry out of the quarrel with ourselves, said Yeats, and these fears and obsessions are highly individual. The lyric poet is very different from the dark poet, and neither of these will wish to be the poetic spokesperson of their age in the way that Tennyson, Larkin or Betjeman became in England.


How is originality fostered?

1. By personal difficulties, particularly in childhood, that have been worked through. Analyze and meet these difficulties.

2. By unswerving self-honesty. Ask yourself: is this what you really hoped to write? Could you not dig deeper into the wellsprings of the poem?

3. By starting afresh, expanding your repertoire with new techniques and new themes.

4. By pacing yourselves, drawing up timetables of writing that extend and build on previous accomplishments.

5. By working in related fields: writing novels, short-stories, articles: particularly where these unlock new perspectives and energies.


1. A Poetry Career. Tim Love. Jan 2003. Publishing attempts and successes. NNA
2. Raising the Barr: A Conversation With Poetry Foundation's John Barr. Interview by Joan Houlihan touches on MFA output and decline in poetry readership.
3. Advice To Young Poets ó Quotes. Mark Worden. 2000.
4. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Or the Utter Failure of American Poetical Criticism. Dan Schneider. Feb. 2001. Attack on the poor state of poetic criticism and editing.
5. The Poetry Kit Interviews David Kennedy. Ted Slade. 1998. An insight into the UK poetry business. NNA
6. The Poetry Workshop and its Discontents: A Report from the Dark Underbelly of Academic Creative Writing. Briggs Seekins. Apr. 2001. Sobering view of the US poetry network.
7. Visionary Company. Marjorie Perloff. Critical Review of Harold Bloom's anthology The Best of the Best.
8. Timothy Steele. Jun. 2000. Interview in The Cortland Review commenting on poetry cliques.
9. Volta: Toward A Century Of Real Inventions. Esther Cameron. May 2001. Status of poetry and what needs to be done.
10. Who hired Bill Moyers to destroy American poetry? Carlo Parcelli. Reflection on L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry.
11. Reviewing the Reviewers. Anne Burke.
. Reviewing and literary culture in the USA.
12. Poetry in the Workshop. Stephanie Bolster . Dec. 2003.
. Difficulties and benefits of running a workshop.
13. The Poet Within: a Workshop Series. Julie Reinshagen. A detailed curriculum, with resources.
14. From Petit to Langpo: A History of Solipsism and Experience In Mainstream American Poetics Since the Rise of Creative Writing. Gabriel Gudding. Extended essay, with references.
15.Patrick Cheney, Frederick A. de Armas, European Literary Careers: The Author from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Univ. Toronto Press, 2002) Book review by Alexander J. Beecroft: literary careers in antiquity.
16. Academy of American Poets. Academy and non-Academy events in the USA. Includes biographies of modern poets.
17. Modern America Poetry. Includes biographies of modern poets.
18. Online Poetry Workshops, Conferences and Boards. Part of extensive poetry site.
19. Poetry News. Articles from the UK Poetry Society's newsletter.
20. Poetry Slam Inc. Information on poetry slams in USA, Canada and Europe. http://www.poetryslam./com
21. Wordworx. News and listings for the New Zealand scene.
22. US State Poetry Societies. Lists those that have websites.
23. Poetry Society of America. Excellent listings of US poetry events and magazines.

C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.