RNF Skinner

On ‘Success’

23rd September 1991

One of the major criteria people have in judging themselves or others is that of success. I haven’t escaped the claws of the monster called ‘Wanting Success’: it may seem that I have, in that I don’t have a career: I’m not seeking success in what it is commonly thought to be. But the reality is that the notion of succeeding is still a strong part of me, only it gets focused on wanting magazines to publish my stuff. I want to be a success with regard to my poetry + fiction – and the danger is of using ‘success in getting published’ as the criterion for judging the worthiness of, say, a poem. Now, for a poem to be rejected regularly should (+ does) lead me to consider “is this poem any good? Does it fulfil whatever potential it has?” – but the actual fact of rejection doesn’t determine the value or otherwise of the poem. The value of a poem depends on totally other criteria… 

Success/failure, + value/non-value are independent variables, in the same way that how far north or south of the equator a place is located tells you nothing about how far east or west it is of the Greenwich meridian. So, rather than striving for greater publishing ‘success’, I would be better employed writing the best poem I can, + subject it to intense scrutiny + criticism with the questions in mind “does it work? can its weakest lines be improved? has it reached its full potential? does every line pull its weight? does form enhance content?” I should attend to all of those concerns and If, ultimately, the poem fails in the eyes of the world, so what? 

(30 years later I read that Clive James, in his brief ‘Letter to a Young Poet’ concluding Injury Time [Picador 2017] counselled, “Train yourself to care less about the praise. You should work your new poem to perfection not because it will please more people that way – it might please fewer – but because in its finished state it will prove itself an independent artefact invulnerable even to your own doubts. If a poem has its own confidence, the day will come when you can look back on it and wonder how you did it.” Exactly so.)

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