Not Being a Poet

Over at thebelatedwriter, my fellow blogger and former Creative Writing course-mate (or, so to speak, my former comrade in arms) has been meditating on a problem of denomination. If you write, if you would like to write, are you allowed to call yourself a writer?

The other day I did something naughty. When I registered with the London Review of Books to read an article (which it then wouldn’t let me read), I listed my profession as Writer/Poet – something I’ve never done before. […] when I scrolled down the list of professions named by the LRB a voice inside me said, Yes, I’m a writer; that’s what I am.

The post goes on to test the weight of this statement, delicately considering whether and when it’s allowable to claim the word ‘writer’, its title, ‘Being a Writer’, seeming to tip the balance on the side of quiet positive determination. But another, similar word feels like a step too far.

I wouldn’t dare to call myself a poet, even though I do write poems […]

The word ‘poet’ is like a knot in a tangle of wool that won’t undo. Why do people who write poems shrink from calling themselves poets? Perhaps because they think of a poet in something like the way Will Ladislaw does in George Eliot’s Middlemarch:

‘To be a poet is to have a soul so quick to discern that no shade of quality escapes it, and so quick to feel, that discernment is but a hand playing with finely-ordered variety on the chords of emotion—a soul in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge. One may have that condition by fits only.’

‘But you leave out the poems,’ said Dorothea. ‘I think they are wanted to complete the poet. I understand what you mean about knowledge passing into feeling, for that seems to be just what I experience. But I am sure I could never produce a poem.’

Many of us, probably, fail to discover a quickly-discerning soul in ourselves on self-examination, nor even fits of the condition Will describes. In the ordinary everyday round of arbitrary moods and more or less successful attempts at living, one would like to have a full, finely-tuned and generous spirit, one would like to be a Dorothea, but one probably feels more of a ‘brown patch’—like Mary Garth without so much strength of character or absolute integrity. I defy anyone to say ‘I am a poet’ five seconds after their alarm has gone off in the morning, or at the end of the day as they come home feeling ragged, or while scrubbing the toilet. Whether or not one agrees with Will Ladislaw’s or anyone else’s definition of a poet, there are nebulous quantities of emotional or spiritual or pseudo-spiritual baggage around the word, such that it might imply kudos and makes a lot of people proportionally twitchy about applying it to themselves.

A complication of all this is that there is no word so suitable as ‘poet’ for describing someone who is studying poetry on a Creative Writing course. Students who are specialising in poetry, combined in a poetry seminar with students who are specialising the novel, automatically become ‘the poets’, or even ‘the pure poets’, though the seminar may not equip anyone with the capacity to decide, or allow anyone the time to consider, whether there is anything special about The Pure Poets’ specialisation beyond the fact that they don’t write as many words as The Novelists, and often huddle them together into the top left hand corner of the page.

Similarly, a person who happens to have published a slim volume of verse is called a poet, and so, in an event called ‘Being a Poet’, in February this year, the Royal Society of Literature gathered four published poets to discuss such aspects of the matter as the awkwardness of admitting to Being a Poet in social situations, and the inconvenient necessity of getting some money from somewhere. One imagines, from the questions at the end, that the audience mostly consisted of wannabe poets yearning for recognition from the world of the publishers and the published, who wouldn’t use the word ‘poet’ so lightly, whether they avoid it, or, instead, use it as a self-conscious statement of identity. (And perhaps some published ‘poets’ still feel the same way.) Publication may not even be proof of the quality of the actual poems (which seem to have dropped out of sight here), let alone evidence of the moral or spiritual qualities that one might associate with the word ‘poet’ without quite intending to. Yet published poets are called poets, and poetry students are called poets, even though the word ‘poet’ seems to be a bar held over people heads, or under which we place ourselves, a bar of the kind that one’s too much of a weakling to do chin-ups on.

Perhaps all this is why a writer for the Wales Arts Review said that to succeed on a Creative Writing MA—and perhaps, by implication, in writing generally—you need ambition, ego, and self-confidence: you will get furthest if you just decide that you jolly well are a poet or novelist and then storm through all thoughts and circumstances that seem to suggest the contrary, or that might make you stop to ask what it actually means.

The alternative, though—to be who you are, and get on with writing some poems—seems worth trying.

In a desperate effort to make this post not too unreasonably long, I shall call suddenly upon Eeldrop and Appleplex to share their view that ‘when a man is classified something is lost …’, even when he is classified as a poet.

“But at least,” said Appleplex, “we are. …”

“Individualists. No!! nor anti-intellectualists. These also are labels. The ‘individualist’ is a member of a mob as fully as any other man: and the mob of individualists is the most unpleasing, because it has the least character. Nietzsche was a mob-man, just as Bergson is an intellectualist. We cannot escape the label, but let it be one which carries no distinction, and arouses no self-consciousness. Sufficient that we should find simple labels, and not further exploit them. I am, I confess to you, in private life, a bank-clerk. …”

“And should, according to your own view, have a wife, three children, and a vegetable garden in a suburb,” said Appleplex.

“Such is precisely the case,” returned Eeldrop, “but I had not thought it necessary to mention this biographical detail. As it is Saturday night, I shall return to my suburb. Tomorrow will be spent in that garden. …”

“I shall pay my call on Mrs. Howexden,” murmured Appleplex.

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6 Responses to Not Being a Poet

  1. edgarthedolphin says:

    the relationship (isomorphism?) between poets (who write poems) [which hardly anybody reads] {but it doesnt matter} and mathematicians (who write theorems) [ditto] {ditto} continues to interest me.
    And the “awkwardness of admitting to Being a Mathematician in social situations” perhaps trumps that of being a poet?

  2. edgar the dolphin says:

    anyway, here is a maths poem, for those who understand latex.

    If this is a poem, then I am a poet.
    This is indeed a poem. The conclusion follows immediately.

  3. lucysixsmith says:

    This is part of the reason why it would have been nice to have succeeded in writing some poems about Alan Turing…

  4. Sorry – I realise I’ve almost pinched your title. I should have checked! However, there is a connection (I didn’t know how to do the link properly, by the way).

    • lucysixsmith says:

      Don’t worry — my title was pinched from your post entitled ‘Being a Writer’ in the first place, and partly from the RSL event called ‘Being a Poet’.

      I noticed and felt duly honoured by the mention of my blog!

      There is a button somewhere, when you’re writing a post, with a picture of a chain link on it, which allows you to insert a hyperlink. — I think it then asks you for a title for the link, and the title is the underlined words that actually appear in the post. At least, that’s how it works as far as I remember!

      I like this bouncing around of similar titles. “Here, one might suppose, is a place for quiet co-operative labour…”

  5. Pingback: A useful distinction | logicsheep

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