A poet is someone who writes poetry.
Writers producing a diverse range of artworks can be referred to as poets. The majority of poets write using line breaks and structures known as “verse forms”. But many also write so-called “prose poetry”, in which words are usually arranged in sentences and paragraphs, rather than lines, and even simply in sounds. These latter poets are known as “sound poets”.
Poets can broadly be split into two groups. Some poets write primarily for their work to be read; other poets, often referred to as “performance poets”, write primarily for their work to be performed.
Generally, poets gain some income from publication of their work, but most are also reliant on other sources of income. Most poets, therefore, have “portfolio careers”, splitting their time between writing poetry and, for example, teaching or judging poetry competitions. Many people would still consider themselves to be poets even if they do not earn most of their income from poetry.
Increasingly, poets are commissioned to spend a period of time at a particular organisation or place. This is called a “residency” and the “writer-in-residence” will normally be expected to write a certain number of poems over the duration of their residency. Similarly, some poets are commissioned to perform or to write one-off pieces for particular events and publications.
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Very few poets make a living solely from writing poems. Most poets supplement their income with other jobs. This may be writing other creative work, such as novels. Increasingly, professional poets also work as tutors on Creative Writing courses at universities or through organisations which promote writing, such as the Arvon Foundation.
There are many organisations which award grants and bursaries to poets to allow them to write. For example, The Eric Gregory Awards totalling £24,000 each year are awarded to British poets under the age of 30 on the basis of a submitted collection.
Some poetry prizes also award significant monetary prizes. The Bridport Poetry prize is the richest writing prize in the UK, which anyone can enter, with first prize money for poetry of £5000.
A poet who publishes often (a new collection every two years or so) and regularly wins prizes and grants, can still expect an income below the national average of £24,000.
Poets usually have to be self-motivated to produce work, whether it is commissioned or not. This means that the number of poems and hours put into writing them varies enormously from poet to poet.
Poets may have contracts with publishers which require them to write a certain number of poems in a given time. They often work closely with editors to redraft and refine work ready for publication.
There is an increasing number of poets whose published work is only one aspect of their job as a poet. Some poets work as poet in residence in hospitals and prisons and educational institutions, holding art therapy sessions, writing occasional pieces, and occasionally, receiving training as nurses or psychiatrists or counsellors too.
Many poets also regularly perform their work at one-off events, festivals and online. In addition, more well-known poets may be asked to speak at public events and meetings, about poetry, as well as themselves and their work more broadly.
There are no formal qualifications required to be a poet. However, creative writing courses in schools and at undergraduate and postgraduate degree level, are increasingly popular. These usually involve “workshops”, in which students perform writing exercises set by a tutor and discuss one another’s work. At the same time, students conceive and complete writing longer works as a part of their course, under guidance from published writers who tutor them.
Such courses are popular, not only because they offer guidance from tutors, but because they can introduce students to publishers.
Many poets have studied for degrees in related subjects, such as literature. But there are also successful poets with no formal qualifications at all. For example, the celebrated 19th Century poet, John Clare, left school aged 12.
It is difficult to say precisely what it is that makes someone able to write good poetry. This is partly because it is a very personal form of expression and different audiences will respond to different poems in different ways. It is also partly because success seems to come from a mixture of innate ability and hard work.
Many poets have professional skills which reach well beyond writing poetry. Poets have had simultaneous professions in fields as diverse as the law (Wallace Stevens), medicine (William Carlos Williams), farming (Peter Reading) and banking (TS Eliot).
There are, however, some attributes which are essential to making a living from writing poetry:
- Ability to work on your own
- Literacy and a love of language (although there are successful poets who spell poorly, and who are dyslexic)
- Attention to detail
Poetry is rarely a 9 to 5 job. Poets have very personal routines, which they develop over time. Many poets have a desk in their house at which they write regularly. Others may write in many different locations. Generally, poets have to spend a lot of time on their own in order to write.
Successful poets may have literary agents, who broker deals with publishers, organise new opportunities for commissions and readings, and publicity. The pressures of public life are well-documented as a source of stress, particularly for stereotypically reclusive poets.
Poets working on residencies in prisons, mental hospitals and other locations will expect attendant working circumstances. Most public institutions will give induction or training before beginning.
A great many poets, however, are not recognised by publishers and readers for a long time, if ever. In this sense, it can be more of a vocation than a typical career. Poets in such cases simply keep producing work because they feel they have to, whether anyone else wants to read it or not.
Very few people are employed full-time as poets. Perhaps the most famous employer of poets is our Queen, here in the UK, who employs a new Poet Laureate every ten years.
Whilst Faber and Faber are major publishers, numerous small and local presses specialise in poetry. Some of these, such as Carcanet, Bloodaxe and Flarestack are respected and prestigious in the poetry world.
Poets who have published major collections for major publishers can expect to be approached by an agent; however, agents are employees, and not employers, of the writer.
Poetry residencies are now in place at many institutions, and schools, prisons, universities, mental hospitals, hospitals and care homes all advertise positions for art therapists and poets in residence.
The career progression in poetry is much less standardised and predictable than most professions, since it is difficult to set universal markers of success. A typical route might involve a poet beginning by having individual poems published in a number of magazines and journals. Most journals do not pay, or pay very little.
They might then put together a collection of 30-50 poems to be published. If a first collection is successful, poets will often have several collections published by the same publisher.
There are several prestigious prizes and honours which poets might hope to be awarded. Some of the major ones are:
- The Forward Prize (awarded annually, in three categories: Best Collection; Best First Collection; Best single poem)
- The National Poetry competition (awarded annually)
- The Poet Laureateship (post awarded every ten years; sometimes renewed for life)
Poets who stop writing poetry go on to do a range of related jobs. Common jobs include literary critic, arts administrator and academic.
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What’s it really like?
David Hart was an Anglican priest, theatre critic and arts administrator before he became a professional poet…
I have been writing poems for most of my life but it was not until I won the National Poetry Competition in 1994, at the age of 54, that it seemed possible to make a living as a poet.
There really is no typical day for me as a poet, though I know other poets who work in different, structured ways. I might write for two hours in the morning, then go for a walk near my home in Birmingham. I walk along the canals and through the local park, and think. After lunch I might read, or redraft the morning’s work, or other, older work. I send and receive emails throughout the day, communicating with other poets and at the moment with the younger writers whom I am mentoring. In the evenings there is reading and sometimes writing or poetry readings to give or attend too.
In the past I have entered poetry competitions for a number of reasons. It’s a good way to make yourself write and think about writing. Since then I’ve judged poetry competitions and I know the process of sifting and choosing and dividing the poems up into piles, but I do think it can be a good thing for aspiring poets.
Writing and teaching can complement one another. I began running poetry workshops at around the same time as I won the competition and have since held posts as a creative writing tutor at the Universities of Warwick and Birmingham.
For me, poetry is a process of investigation and discovery. Writing, reading, teaching and walking have all provoked poetic work. I have found residencies to be provocative and useful ways of beginning these processes. They also put poetry in unusual places and can open up important collaborations between people, whether they are writers or not.
Poets can be lonely, and there are times when writing poetry seems to be a pointless activity. It’s not a case of liking or disliking the job so much as feeling that I must do it. I am aware that this might sound pretentious, but I think it’s what most poets would say, and many poets who are not published also.
Professionally, poetry might be said to be attractively flexible, affording freedom in method and practice and habits. Poetry is also a means of expression, of saying things about the world, and to do this every day is something that might have a positive impact on your life – I suppose I must think it does. Opportunities arise: I have been faced with interesting and surprising proposals in the form of residencies, commissions and so on.
Poetry is not one thing, but many. I have written poems to go on nurses’ trolleys at a hospital, in response to paintings in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, and to be set to music and performed.
There are no universal rules to follow when writing poetry, but I’d suggest that enjoying language, and not worrying too much about what a poem should be, are pretty important. Reading widely helps, too.