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Speaking as a poet (of sorts), I’d point out that the dividing line between romantic “needs” and personal “faults” is notoriously difficult to locate—and approaching the matter as a discourse on the “poet” persona unbalances and (perhaps) even unhinges the tenuous relationship between the two, largely if not exclusively in a fashion which privileges the former. That is, who dares to challenge the peculiar emotional, intellectual, psychological, and metaphysical fetishes of the “poet” persona, by pointing out that the vestiges of same are curiously synonymous with several undesirable human qualities, among them stubbornness, anxiety, cynicism, anti-social disposition, depression, selfishness, arrogance, and a particularly nauseating form of non-religious self-piety/self-martyrdom? Is being an emotionally-crippled narcissist made more attractive by the fact that being so occasionally produces some really extraordinary free verse? Obviously I’m over-shooting the bow here, but let’s be frank about how conveniently wieldy the persona of the poet is: as a shield (as cited above) against the potentially biting effects of an episode of self-reflection; as a sword, to assail those who would point out that the “poet” persona is frequently a facade for still deeper faults (which I say because, as you suggest, being a poet is often made to *feel* like a fault), and, as importantly, as a means of excommunicating our deepest wounds, by accusing those who would question our “poet” persona of making mere frontal assault on Poetry or (worse) Art itself (which only the boorish do, and only the isolated and uncouth with impunity).

Speaking as a lawyer, and wondering, therefore, not so much about the gloss we put on what we do, but the blunt substance of it—not the intention but the deed (and sparing you the relevant Latin, which I know you know)—I think your entry would be more persuasive titled as “The Cost of the Creative Spirit”—because there is nothing much in the process of poetry-writing (at least not that you’ve pointed to or alluded to) which is anything more than a *scheduling conflict* so far as any half-way decent relationship is concerned. But speak about a curious intellect, a restless soul, an empathetic heart, a youthful spirit, a rebellious psyche, and a generous disposition, and, poet or no, you’ve got one particular brand of romantic inclination dead to rights: not especially for the Poet, no—as there are so many types of those—but for anyone who thinks that “forward” is not merely the Great Inevitable but the Personal Necessity of a meaningful lifetime. Might be a Poet? Sure. Need be? No.

Poetry is demanding, yes, but is there a distinction between a relationship which falters because “poetry is demanding” and one which meets a similar fate because, say, “being a lawyer is demanding,” or “being a doctor is demanding,” or “being a politician/soldier/traveling salesman is demanding”? Likewise, I’d just as soon steer clear of someone with an abused notion of “what a poet is” as I would someone who had similarly puerile expectations regarding, well, money (“what the rich are”), physique (“what the beautiful are”), style (“what the stylish are”), power (“what the influential are”), or any one of a number of fetishes serious people bend to but don't brake for.

Being a Poet—immersing oneself in the persona of the “poet”—isn’t so different from being anything else one could think of, provided the following proof is allowed: where sincere, and deliberate, and most importantly, *consuming*, investiture is investiture. We might think less of an investment banker who’s a slave to the Dow, as opposed to a poet who’s a slave to his/her Art, but the destructiveness of such single-mindedness (as to any underlying relationship) is just about the same for both. The latter may be more excusable (as being so much more *humane*) but it also lends itself more readily to human foibles, such as, say, self-rationalization: e.g., my creative fits are “inspired,” not “petulant” or “selfish”; my need to remove myself from all human intercourse to ruminate and reflect on the Rightness or Wrongness of Certain Things is “spiritual” and “refined,” not “self-indulgent” or “stultifying”; my exacting aesthetic beliefs are “considered” and “principled,” not “stubborn” or “cynical.” And so on. I don’t think the objects of one’s affections need to respect the products of one’s writing, merely the inclinations which engender it and the efforts it requires. But having said that, is the muse more “demanding” (to use your word) than the law, or medicine, or advanced-level rock-climbing, or parenting, or even (to make the paradox complete) being the sort of lover (emotionally and otherwise) we all aspire to be?

Anything which we need more than it needs us, and which we pursue despite that fact, both exalts and diminishes us—in life, in love, in career, in hobby, in Art. The Poet suffers and benefits from this maxim no more and no less than anyone else to whom it applies.


Well, I asked for that. Good points, my friend, as always, and perhaps a much-needed kick in the pants for me. Allow a return boot to your self-deprecatory pantaloons – you are a poet, no doubt of that.

While I follow your argument in terms of making dynamic I hinted at (if it can truly be said to exist – does it matter so much if it arises from creative enterprise or is a requirement for it?) more applicable to a greater range of behaviors and callings, I would assert (given my limited experience in such things) that being a poet (ack! – I know!) is in several significant ways different from the other professions (or obsessions) you’ve cited, in no small part because poetry demands both a self examination and self expression that, say, being a banker, does not, nor, I think, a musician or painter or perhaps even a prose writer. For poets, there is no “other thing” that one does to express one’s soul more fully, save perhaps in love or in religion (which leaves me rather in the cold I’m afraid.) If one wishes to “get good” at poetry, to justify one’s cultivation of the gift or talent, one practices, as a poet, turning that cold eye we employ for language and poetics on ourselves and on those we love. And who could ever like what they see of themselves, or make others feel comfortable about what this process entails? Anecdote – I was speaking to a talented musician this week and discussing what I knew about poetry and lyrics. She thought my approach vaguely horrifying – the creative mystique stripped away, the process laid bare, the awful confrontation with and conflation of the Self in each and every poem, the struggle against that – and for what? A spoken thing lasting 60 seconds or so. She’d much rather churn out lyric after lyric and let the chips fall where they may. I envy that, to a degree, not questioning every impulse, every word, every poem with “Why have I made this? What did I hope to say? What does it (and that) then say about myself and others?” But is it possible to write poetry without these questions? Perhaps, but I think not for myself. Legacy of Language Poetics or what have you, the poem exists, for better or worse, in the field of myself and my expectations (of the poem, of audience, of damn well near everything.)

I think you are correct to identify “the poet” as a persona or mask we can wear – but again it’s a mask we use to engage the world, a mask we use to engage ourselves, which we carry with us into our most intimate moments with others. This mask is evaluative, judgmental in the perceptual sense – while a painter might look at someone’s face and see light, or a banker see something which arises from their humanity, I believe the poet is more than not often the one asking “What is this I’m seeing? How would I express it in words in a way that shows it’s whole truth?” Poetry demands an unfettered engagement with the world. It’s mask is one I think we grow comfortable in wearing, but not, I think, one that others are fully comfortable with us wearing. However, I have to ask - can we surrender it? Walk away? Change utterly?

In closing I have to say I got a good laugh out of this line – “Is being an emotionally-crippled narcissist made more attractive by the fact that being so occasionally produces some really extraordinary free verse?” That ought to be printed out on something so I can wear it about town. As Carver, writing about his dead dog, noted when a good poem was arising from his wrestling with the situation – “and you’re now almost glad the dog died.”



PS - Ah, but perhaps I ought to close with a poem. . .

Jack Gilbert's "In Dispraise of Poetry"

When the King of Siam disliked a courtier,
he gave him a beautiful white elephant.
The miracle beast deserved such ritual
that to care for him properly meant ruin.
Yet to care for him improperly was worse.
It appears the gift could not be refused.


Son –

I haven’t been getting all that much sleep lately, so forgive me for not picking up on many of your post’s points. This morning I’ve been thinking about one of the things you wrote:

“I don’t think the objects of one’s affections need to respect the products of one’s writing, merely the inclinations which engender it and the efforts it requires.”

I think at one point I held this view, that it was enough for your loved one to simply know you did something, give you the space for it, and respect one’s labor. But not I’m not sure– could you really spend as much time as you do on your work, to have your lover say, “eh” at the end of the day? Be the indifference indicative of a gap in aesthetics or intelligence or emotional engagement, it seems it would not bode well for a relationship. “Meet my boyfriend – he does this thing, it takes up a lot of his time. I have no opinion at all on the final results.” While that might seem completely acceptable were I an organic chemist, for some reason I don’t think it works well in any of the creative arts. I should point out that I wouldn’t consider listening to a work and then reacting to it (judging it) an “eh” response at all – nor would I consider disagreement via dialogue on the work an “eh” response.


Perhaps I do need coffee this morning.

What are your thoughts on this?



I think I've located the source of our disconnect on this point: you do presume, however inadvertently (and I say “inadvertently” because I know that, stated baldly, this is not a precept you accept) that “the Poet is his Art” (or, aiming at an even balder assessment than that, I might allude to the old workshop admonishment, “you're confusing the poem with the poet”). As though to deny one were to deny the other. So, let's unpack that—

1. Does poetry, as you say, "demand...self-examination"? I wonder, and not merely because I've known many poets who either rarely engaged in self-examination or whose self-examinations were patently fraudulent and/or self-serving (making poets, of course, no different than the rest of the populace, myself included, in this regard). I *do* think every poem we write carries with it some vestige of our self-identity—some poems more than others—and acts, in a way, as an emissary to our local/regional/national/global community. Yet often this act of (if you will) diplomacy is not entirely intentional, or perhaps merely not entirely *conscious*—so many poems we write are not “about” the content of our selves (and how many such poems have failed!) but rather are threaded through the values we aspire to and/or the image-sets which, for our spirits (or whatever you term them), are somehow foundational and therefore necessary. But do most criticisms of poetry rise or fall on content, anyway? None of us who workshop regularly have found this to be the case, I don’t think; where our poems are rejected, scorned, ridiculed, belittled, chided, and needled, it is largely on aesthetic grounds. And so I find myself coming back to the archetypal (say) girlfriend speaking to her archetypal (say) poet-boyfriend, and somehow giving signals to the effect of, “I don’t care particularly much for your poetry.” Is she rejecting the man, or one aesthetic in which he’s grounded his energies? The values espoused by the poem, or the delivery-system through which the values are espoused? Can we really say that a girlfriend best “finds her man” through his work as a poet, and not, say, through the basic and humane sort of discourse lovers make about what each values and dreams of? Would we term a relationship healthy where the best envoy of the male’s “self-examination” was his poetry, not his ability to communicate directly and nakedly (no pun intended) with his significant other? I think you see what I mean. To summarize: not all poems *directly* engage in acts of “self-examination,” and even those which do are not replacements or proxies for (in *any* sense) the ongoing dialogue of a relationship, which rises and falls on source-to-source contacts, not source-to-tool-to-source communications; and as for those poems which only *indirectly* exploit notions of self (many, if not most poems, I’d say), they are predominantly open for critique on grounds of aesthetics, not substance—that is to say, no girlfriend would hunt for her boyfriend’s character in a poem intended as an indirect revelation on said character, when the meat-and-bones of the man is available for direct revelation on the matter on a day-to-day basis.

Poetry is an aid to self-examination, but it is only one of many, and cannot be termed an “essential” act of self-examination because life (which required of us constant self-examination, even before Socrates told us so) makes many men and few poets. Poetry is also an aid to communication, but primarily with respect only to the concentric circles of the communities in which we live, and not to those we love the most—for whom speaking through poetry would be something akin to hammering a nail with a pillow. They deserve a little less sheepishness than the coy and guarded self-expression the typical poem engenders.

2. Does poetry “demand...self-expression”? Yes, of course it does, but I’ve already conceded, in my hypothetical, a girlfriend who “respects...the inclinations which engender [poetry] and the effort[ ] [poetry] requires.” Self-expression is an act, not a result, for no self is finally expressed through any single poem; so, if we presume a given romantic interest respects both the effort the act of poetry requires and the motivations which underlie the act, what else remains? That the so-called “product” of this “self-expression” be appreciated more by said romantic interest than, say, a conversation over dinner? Pillow-talk? Whispered secrets on a darkened beach? What man or woman would accept the “self” circumscribed in a lover’s poem over the self which presents itself to that man or woman every morning, day, evening, and night? I think you’ve made my argument for me in saying, “for poets, there is no ‘other thing’ that one does to express one’s soul more fully, save perhaps IN LOVE or in religion...” [Emphasis supplied]. That’s my point exactly: poetry is subsumed by love, and therefore cannot be necessary to love (else non-poets would never love, which of course they often do, though I know we as poets like to believe not so ardently as we do, or with such spectacle of stars and entire universes collapsing as we do).

I’ve written perhaps four hundred poems in my “career,” Scop, but have never felt the need to “turn[ ]...[a] cold eye...on those [I] love.” I don’t think this is a necessary feature of poetry-writing, let alone the veritable prerequisite to “get[ting] good at poetry” that you suggest it is. For me, poetry is a “casting-out,” almost like fishing for stars—I rarely drag my nets in places my heart has never left. Poetry has much to tell me about what I wish for, but does it inform—let alone create—my sense of self? Can you really say, Scop, that poetry not only allows you to explore your sense of self but *creates* that sense as well? I *do* believe poetry is often an act of personal myth-making, but I think it’s a top-down process, not a bottom-up one.

Of course, as I said in a post above, “there are so many types of poets,” which is really to say no more than, “there are so many types of lovers,” and “there are so many types of men.” It may be that you and I love differently, but is that because we’re different poets or different men? I would never wish for the “creative mystique” of poetry to be stripped away; I do not yearn for a “conflation of the Self” in “each and every poem”; I don’t think many of my poems involve an “awful confrontation” either with Self or Other; I don’t “question[ ] every impulse” in every poem with a resounding, apocalyptic “why?”; I don’t “engage the world” as a Poet—in fact, I tend to think it is the *world* which has engaged *me* through the act of poetry.

As you’ve said, it’s possible to write poetry without these guiding principles, but it is not so (as you've noted) for yourself. Likewise, it may be possible that you cannot love someone without receiving some love, from them, both for you *and* for your poetry—but don’t mistake that for the plight of the Poet, or for a pitfall of Art, because there are as many ways to love as there are to write a poem, and Life takes as little interest in and responsibility for how you love as Art does for the peculiar fetishes of your writing-process.

Finally, I think it is Life, not poetry, which demands of us an “unfettered engagement with the world.” That you erect poetry as the gateway to this engagement, and not merely (as I might put it) “living well,” seems to summarize our disagreement: I could love someone who lives well but not through poetry, your argument militates (at least by implication) that to live well *is* to live through poetry. This is not to pull rank by any means (because I know you’ve likely had many analogous situations in your own life, and here I merely speak of one of mine), but: one cannot stand before twelve fellow citizens in defense of another man’s liberty, without believing, and believing as much as one does in the value of Life itself, that there are many, many ways to live well, and many ways to make an unfettered engagement to the world.

To employ (appropriately given that last comment) a legal maxim: poetry is sufficient, but not necessary, to Life.


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