How A Small Press Poetry Contest Launched Samuel Beckett’s Career

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Samuel Beckett, one of the most influential and iconic writers of the 20th century, is best known for his groundbreaking novels and plays that pushed the boundaries of modern literature. However, few people know that Beckett’s career was launched by a small press poetry contest, which not only gave him his first taste of literary success but also set him on the path to becoming a literary giant.

In 1929, Beckett, then a young Irish writer, was struggling to make a name for himself in the literary world. He had recently graduated from Trinity College in Dublin and was working as a lecturer in Paris, where he was surrounded by the city’s vibrant artistic and literary circles. Despite his proximity to the likes of James Joyce and other prominent writers, Beckett’s own work was yet to gain recognition.

That was when he stumbled upon an announcement for a poetry contest sponsored by the Hours Press, a small publishing house based in Paris. The contest, which was open to all English-language poets, offered a cash prize and publication of the winning poem in a limited edition booklet. Beckett, who had been writing poetry in his spare time, saw this as an opportunity to get his work noticed and decided to submit a few of his poems.

The judges of the contest were none other than Richard Aldington, a prominent poet and critic, and Nancy Cunard, a wealthy heiress and patron of the arts. After reviewing the submissions, they selected Beckett’s poem “Whoroscope” as the winner. The poem, which explores themes of time, memory, and the search for meaning, impressed the judges with its innovative style and linguistic experimentation.

The publication of “Whoroscope” in 1930 marked a turning point in Beckett’s career. The booklet, which was printed in a limited edition of 300 copies, quickly sold out, and Beckett’s poem was praised by critics and readers alike. The success of “Whoroscope” not only brought Beckett to the attention of the literary establishment but also gave him the confidence to continue writing and experimenting with his unique style.

The impact of the Hours Press poetry contest on Beckett’s career cannot be overstated. It was his first major publication, and it paved the way for his subsequent work, including his novels and plays. The contest also introduced Beckett to a network of writers, artists, and intellectuals who would become his friends and collaborators, including James Joyce, who would become a mentor and influence on his work.

In the years that followed, Beckett went on to write some of his most famous works, including “Waiting for Godot,” “Endgame,” and “Molloy.” He became a leading figure in the Theatre of the Absurd movement and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969. Throughout his career, Beckett remained true to his artistic vision, continuing to push the boundaries of language and form in his work.

The story of how a small press poetry contest launched Samuel Beckett’s career serves as a reminder of the power of literary contests and small presses to discover and nurture new talent. It also highlights the importance of perseverance and dedication to one’s craft, as Beckett’s early success was just the beginning of a long and fruitful career.

Today, the Hours Press poetry contest is largely forgotten, but its legacy lives on in the work of Samuel Beckett, one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. As we celebrate Beckett’s contributions to literature, we are also reminded of the importance of supporting emerging writers and providing them with opportunities to showcase their work.

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