18 June 2005

what makes a poet

Diane Wood Middlebrook’s biography of Anne Sexton describes the poet’s return from her first poetry workshop (1958):

Home from Antioch, Sexton wrote to Dr. Orne [her psychiatrist], who was away for the sumer, about what she had learned by living for a whole week among writers. The experience had confirmed an insight from therapy: even very personal poetry came from the power of words to radiate meanings beyond the poet’s conscious intention.

If I write RATS and discover that rats reads STAR backwards, and amazingly STAR is wonderful and good because I found it in rats, then is star untrue? . . . Of course I KNOW that words are just a counting game, I know this until the words start to arrange themselves and write something bettter than I would ever know. . . . I don’t really believe the poem, but the name is surely mine so I must belong to the poem. So I must be real. . . . When you say “words mean nothing” then it means that the real me is nothing. All I am is the trick of words writing themselves.

Sexton’s tone of humble self-assessment in this letter masks a deep insight into the workings of society: that “poet” is an identity extrapolated from a published poem. The poem’s “I” is real because it has become visible in the medium of print and circulated among those who are positioned to recognize it. The better the journal in which the poem appears, the more secure the identify deflected onto its maker. Like other forms of currency, the first-person pronoun has a value established in a cultural marketplace. That value accrues to the poem’s author as a side effect of the recognition of her or his work.



8 comments:

  1. I find that sad and dangerous.

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  2. Poets have since time immemorial hosted the muse. We get a little cocky when things turn out right but, anybody who has done it for longer than the season of love gets quickly back to hosting the muse! We know that we are just people, if our poetry is to be great, it must not have to depend on the fact that we are great -- we know better than that! Ergo the muse!

    I do not wish my poetry to be just as good as I am. I am delighted to discover that more has been found than I am capable of putting there! Rock on the muse, let me be your not too pompous slave. Let not my sense of self get in the way of true beauty and insight! Let me be an instrument in the pagent of eternal beauty, not so I can justify myself, but so that I can encounter the wonders that are beyond me and make them personal!

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  3. Sorry Jilly and Carol, you were in the process of a serious dialog; I just get a little carried away!

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  4. Jilly: I'd be interested in more clearity as to what exactly you are finding "sad and dangerous" before I comment. I certainly don't want to put words in anyone's mouth but I find this topic of interest.

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  5. “poet” is an identity extrapolated from a published poem. The poem’s “I” is real because it has become visible in the medium of print and circulated among those who are positioned to recognize it. The better the journal in which the poem appears, the more secure the identify deflected onto its maker. Like other forms of currency, the first-person pronoun has a value established in a cultural marketplace. That value accrues to the poem’s author as a side effect of the recognition of her or his work.

    If your ego value is wrapped up in the visibility of your art works (ie poetry) then that is what I think is sad and dangerous. A poet is just asking for trouble if his or her identity is so entrenched in the poems. Plus I don't think it is healthy for your creativity to think like that. No wonder so many talented poets have self-destructed. --Jilly

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  6. "but so that I can encounter the wonders that are beyond me and make them personal!" that is beautiful Russell.

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  7. Ah, yes, in that context I would agree Jilly.

    I was seeing something entirely different at first. Upon reading the post again, I thought I was missing something that must have been obvious, hence I thought I'd try to understand what you were saying before opening my mouth.

    Once and a while I do something wise like that. It usually pays off. :)

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  8. Thanks for the nice words Jilly!

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