David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: 10 Things Successful Poets Do


Over on Lifehack, there’s one of those smarmy little lists to help you better yourself called 10 Things Positive People Don’t Do. Enjoy.

Reading it got me thinking. What are 10 things successful poets do? It’s not like there’s a special pill you can take. It’s not like you can take control of every poem and improve it. It’s not like you can improve the art of poetry. I mean, looking at the sexy photo on that Lifehack page, we all should admit that writing a poem is not like wearing a red, low cut halter in a summer rain shower. Is it?

Check out these and weigh in below with your observations about what successful poets do.

1. They Embrace Toxicity. 
Poets understand that negative feelings are part of the veins of a poem’s emotional potential, both in the poem and in the poet. They surround themselves with the inspirational yearnings of the negative. They are negatively capable, to turn sideways Keats’ phrase. They let complaint and gossip fuel the most positive zones of their imagination and art.

2. They Assume the Worst.
If successful poets don’t have enough problems, they invent some. They leap to conclusions. They jump off bridges of the imagined spirit, the known, the felt, the lived. They freak out about unanswered or unanswerable questions concerning life and death, joy and sorrow. They go on with their day trusting that the untrustworthy is one of poetry’s specialities.

3. They Let Negative Thoughts Hijack Their Brain
Self-disappointment in the process of writing a poem seems like it should be a constitutional right. When negative thoughts pass through a poet’s head, they remind themselves that writing poetry is participating in one of the most ancient arts of human experience. It’s OK to feel that it’s difficult. It’s OK to feel that it’s joyful. It’s OK to be the first, as the writer, to feel dissatisfied with the current version of the poem they’re writing. When their brain is hijacked by negative thoughts, they are experiencing what Jacob experienced in his dream, a wrestle with the angel of the poem’s life.

4. They Don’t Agonize Over Every Little Mistake
Is it easy to forget that perfection is not the goal of art? Sure. Successful poets understand that “imbalance is my balance,” as Theodore Roethke says. Think of it this way: According to Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath always set out, upon writing a new poem, to make a living room set out of a poem. But, later, once she figured out that a living room set wasn’t possible, she would make a very good chair.

5. They Trust Failure
Successful poets don’t fear failure. They don’t avoid it. From failure comes responsibility and possibility and a fresh vision, a new style, an original art.

6. They Look for the Current That Is True
Successful poets are in the pursuit of finding the utterance that is most theirs. They understand that following the latest literary trend, trying to write like last week’s award-winner, is not only futile and damning to the imagination, it is trying to catch up to a movement or style or poetic trend that is already in its imitative phase. To write in the style of the current fad is to be the key that was made from a key that was made from a key but never the original key itself, and therefore it is to be a hand-me-down key that is difficult to fit into the lock.

7. They Resign Themselves to Reality
Reality is where lives are lived. Reality is where dreams are born. Reality is where memory makes a bed. Reality is where memory’s bed cannot be found. Reality is where geography has its roots. Reality is where history impacts the imagination. Reality is the stuff of poetry.

8. They Don’t Think Poetry Is Perfect
Successful poets ignore airy dreams of perfection. They know that there is no perfect time to write a poem, no perfect line of poetry, no perfect style, no perfect aesthetic. Successful poets write poems for any reason and at anytime that will do.

9. They Get Bored
Successful poets stare out the window. Successful poets sit beside the river without a fishing pole. Boredom is one place where creativity, inspiration, and poetry are born. Successful poets are fascinated by the mind’s quiet, dull zones, as well as by the jazz of the world around them.

10. They Get Over Themselves
Yehuda Amichai says, “I think when you’re a poet you have to forget you’re a poet — a real poet doesn’t draw attention to the fact he’s a poet. The reason a poet is a poet is to write poems, not to advertise himself as a poet.” Successful poets know that there is no secret to writing poems. They trust that writing poems begins with alertness, preparation, hard work, and learning from failure. They know that they go through phases as a poet and will reinvent the reasons why they write poems. They trust that last year’s answer might not do for this year or next year.

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →