Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The Sense of a Sensibility: On Being a Poet

'To be a poet  is a condition, not a profession.' ~ Robert Frost

I've been thinking a lot recently on what it means to be called a 'poet.' To be a writer and to be termed a writer is a very different thing from being a poet. Writers write, poets... wander lonely as clouds, through dales and daydreams (!) Poets pen poems of course, but to majority opinion, they exist in a state of bemusement, in a dreamy airy-fairyness. If you imagine a writer, it's a person sitting slavishly at a typewriter, surrounded by reams of pages; imagine a poet and it's a vague ambling figure, eyes to the sky, mind gallivanting betwixt the real and the imaginary. If a writer's profession is seen to be a strange one, then a poet's is far more surreal, and unsure in the eyes of many. 

The term 'poet' not only describes what you do, but more so, who you are. It's not just the act of writing poems that defines a poet, it's the general disposition that goes with that. The poetic disposition or sensibility, the enabler of poetry writing. There is truth in what Robert Frost said that to be a poet 'is a condition, not a profession'. I agree. It is more trait than talent, more a way of being than of writing. Most poets will tell you that to have a career writing poetry is almost impossible. But to be a poet, is reward in itself, for you are blessed with an unique way of seeing the world. 

'Poet' is really a word for a person who pays close attention to life. A life-observer. Note-taker.  Poets see things minutely, miraculously. We are attentive to every little detail, every nuance of emotion, every shift of light. To be a poet is to be continually aware of life - the emotions that eddy and swirl, the strata of the  physical, natural world down to the slightest movement of a leaf in a breeze. As Mary Oliver says in one of her poems: "Instructions for living a life: pay attention, be astonished, tell about it." And that's what poets do. To be a poet you work in the realm of astonishment, where every little thing is a wonder, a wonder that demands the right words to translate it to a wider audience. You have sensitive antennae that are always feeling out situations for poetic inspiration. I always think the mind of a poet is like a coral reef, alive with colour, opening and probing in an endless unfurling of brilliant blossom, vibrant with life. We have a kind of built-in periscope in the heart, to see not out of the deep, but into the deep.

I saw an advertisement for a writing job recently with one of the requirements asking for a 'high emotional intelligence.' Granted, all writers have this of course. How else could you write credibly about people without an innate understanding of the emotional psyche? But poets, well they excel in this realm. Look how precisely we can identify and analyse emotions, pin them like strange underwater specimens to our blank page and dissect them into fragments of many metaphors and similes, symbols and images. Our area of expertise is emotional terrain. We are more equipped there than anywhere else. It's not just a keen sensitivity (we feel - a lot), but we can dive into the depths of those feelings and emerge with a new knowledge, a newly gleaned wisdom  that is poetry's greatest attribute.  

And contrary to some popular opinion, we poets do not live in a grandiose world of our own making. As a poet, you are intrinsically attuned to the world as it is, not removed from it. We render it in language that shines a light on its silent secrets, illuminates and releases its burden of unnoticed glamours. Poetry is an expression of living, a testament of being here and feeling alive, a 'life-cherishing force' as Mary Oliver notes. And it is not the pursuit of the dreamy, or the airy-fairy, or a part-time past-time. It is a worthy discipline. I love how Mark Strand put it that: 'life makes writing poetry necessary to prove I really was paying attention.' In our finer moments, poetry is what we all do, what we all feel; that which quickens out heartbeat and bestows on us a true sense of being alive. Poets are just people who pledge their lives to this course, who take the time to record in verse (to seek, as Coleridge said 'the best words in the best order') the amazement of life they witness.  How can any of this be sometimes looked upon with smug derision by certain people? (Cynic, thy name is critic!)

Writers are concerned mostly with the search for truth in their writing. For poets, it's something else. Our holy grail goal is akin to Beauty, which is always to be found lilting over the horizon, stepping in and out of our wordings like a mirage goddess. To some people success is money, status, fame. To a writer, it is recreating Life in fiction; to a poet it is the skillful capturing of the Muse, the transformation of ordinary matter into the extraordinary. Poetry is a kind of alchemy, gilding precious gold the most commonplace of things. A poet  is blessed with a vision that sees the world as it innately is: a kind of Wonderland of experience and inspiration. 

How to spot a poet? Well maybe it's that person staring off into the distance with a glint in their eye, someone who takes an impish delight in their surroundings.  People who mutter words aloud - Yeats was often caught at this while out walking - no doubt the locals thought him mad, but my, how we of the poetic disposition would disagree! I often speak words aloud to hear their trill (and thrill.) To sound out how they fit together, how they sieve through air for a soft feather finish. As WH Auden says, 'a poet is first and foremost a person who is passionately in love with language,' but I beg to differ. A poet is first and foremost a person who is passionately in love with the world. As Wallace Stevens put it: 'a poet looks at the world the way a man looks at a woman.' And it is this love that leads to ingenious feats of language craft. 

In a book I'm reading now by Irish author Niall Williams ('History of the Rain') I was struck by the lines on the first page about the personality of a poet: "My father bore a burden of impossible ambition. He wanted all things to be better then they were, beginning with himself and ending with this world. Maybe this was because he was a poet. Maybe all poets are doomed to disappointment. Maybe it comes from too much dazzlement." 
Dazzlement. Yes! The very thing. That's the occupational consequence of being a poet, being constantly dazzled.  And it can lead to a lot of things: gratitude, luminous verse, a magnificent sense of the joy of living. But also it can mean disappointment and disillusion and that distinctly Irish trait implied here of melancholy. 

I realise I'm lucky to be Irish and live in a country where poetry is respected so much. To be called a poet here is a term of endearment and respect. We have always celebrated poets in Ireland, right back to ancient times when a 'file' or bard, was one of the highest esteemed members of society. They were seen as a kind of magic practitioner (I love how Seamus Heaney echoed this when he said that he 'dabbled' in words), and were revered for their work. The file was the person who had a say in the running of society, one of its wise council, not to mention a mirth maker and almost soothsayer. The written word was held in the utmost regard, and still is. Today, poets enjoy a respectful presence in the land. Poetry competitions, readings and celebrations are rampant and our legacy of great poets such as Yeats and Heaney always something to be proud of despite other national problems. In a way our national character is infused with a sense of poetry, which manifests itself in wit and melancholy and a 'gift for the gab.' Our language is rain-soaked, dew-fed, a warm mixture of Gaelic and English, a cadence of mirth and woe, chiseled on the rhyme of sing-song greetings and the rhythm of jaunty dialects. 'We are all born with the gene of poetry', but I think this is particularly true of the Irish. And I'm glad to be an inheritor of that heritage. 

I've been thinking about this recently I suppose as I am becoming more aware of it all. How I pay attention to the world. How each day is a mass of colour amid a volley of words and bright bouquets of inspiration that manifest in the most ordinary of situations. Sometimes, there is sensory overload - too much to take in. The whole day shifts and shimmers as a wild rough draft and I struggle to lasso the neurotic subject  matter and pull it all into shape. 

I love that I see the world as a poet. As a place of plentiful inspiration. On good days, every little thing sings for notation: trees, skies, the petal of a flower, the memory of a song, the flutter of an eyelash, the wing of a bird, a smile, a word, a phrase, a food, a feather-light passing feeling. It is an exuberant, almost invincible feeling, a feeling that can trump every other negativity that crops up along the way. Instant heart highs. I have the power to shapeshift it all onto the page, and once there, some sense is made, but more than that, some significance, some semblance of worthy recognition emerges. Anything is worthy of poetry - as Flaubert said: 'There is not a particle of life that does not contain poetry within it'. And you find that to single out a subject for poetic incarnation is to enlarge the experience of it. To present it on a epic scale. And the result is that life accelerates into a momentum of mattering. It's almost a kind of superpower, really.

Being a poet may not be practical in today's world. It may not get you a 9 to 5 job or a moneyed up lifestyle. But it will make you rich with other gifts. Because of being a poet, having a poetic disposition, I find treasure everywhere I look; I can create my own riches. And I suppose I'm writing this post to acknowledge that fact, to express my heartfelt thanks for this 'condition' of being.  To accept it more fully. To understand it. To know my place in the grand scheme of work/life/career/vocation. And maybe mostly, to remember that there is something that I do that will always remain... hidden I suppose. Partly invisible.  But it is still there nonetheless. Pulsing quietly like a galaxy of stars. And it may not matter to some, but it matters to me. It may not be a way of proving my worth in the workplace or 'real' world (let's face it, in most jobs, poetic sensibility or 'high emotional intelligence' is not a required must), but is a way of proving my worth as an all-seeing, all-feeling human being, as a way of paying (awed) dues for my stay on this planet. I thank all my lucky stars that I have been bestowed with not just a knack at arranging words but this way of seeing, of being. This profound delight in taking note of living. I think this line sums up the feeling of a poet writing a poem most brilliantly: 

 "And what I was feeling was the wonder, of being more than me. I had become a shining star, a burning nova. Exploding with love." 
~Walter Myers  

To put it simply, a kind of magic.

And a big-up salute to all you poets reading this! We may have it tough at times contending with practical pedanticness and cynical critics, but do remember, the goodness, the giddy gladness that accompanies our profession, and condition. 



  1. I LOVE the metaphor for the poet's mind - a coral reef seems perfectly accurate to me! Not just because of all the colour and life and bloomings in the underblue, but also because of the thought-fish slipping in and out like quicksilver, swarming and changing.

    I too think being poet is a condition - although funnily enough, I'm reluctant to describe myself as a poet. I think I have this sort of gold standard for myself where I can only call myself a poet once I've published a collection (and maybe not even then). So in a strange sort of way, I felt like this post was sort of giving me permission. Does that make sense? It was sort of acknowledging that being a poet isn't something measurable or quantifiable - "Yes, you have three collections and can now call yourself a poet, off you go" - but rather a way of being and living.

    The idea of a poet as a wandering dreamer makes me smile, too - even I have that whimsical image in my head when I think POET. But as any writer will testify, sitting down to write something takes focus and discipline and clarity. Reworking and rewording something over and over until it's as perfect as it could possibly be - there's nothing drifting or dreamlike about that. It's more like an architect designing a house - every brick and window must be in the right place, the foundations must be perfectly and soundly laid, and if one stone is wrong, back to the drawing board to start over. A poem is one of the hardest things to produce, I sometimes think, because it isn't finite and you are holding yourself - or the poem is holding you - to a standard of perfection. It's not like cleaning a floor - when you're done, the floor is either clean, or it isn't. A poem is the opposite of that - it's huge and mysterious, and no one can tell you whether it's good or not, because that isn't quantifiable, they can only say whether they like it, whether it moves them. That's a difficult thing, sometimes, to never be able to say Eureka, it's done, I've achieved success! Do you know what I mean? But it is also, as you put it, a source of the giddiest gladness. Writing, for me, is when I feel like my best and truest self - like I'm vibrating exactly on the right frequency. And it makes all the petty frustrations, the writing blocks, the rejections, absolutely and utterly worth it. If that's the price to pay for such a sense of joy and wonder, then consider me subscribed.

    "The result is that life accelerates into a momentum of mattering" - YES YES YES YES YES YES. This is it, exactly. I am so bone-level jealous of this, it's just pure beauty and truth.

    Also - there were lots of lovely poetic touches in your writing throughout the post, but I HAD to make a particular comment on 'soft feather finish' - just beautiful.

    I always love to read other writers' thoughts on writing, and this was just such a beautiful thought process to follow you through. Much love and admiration as always xx

    1. Thanks Cheryl, always lovely to hear your input, and from a true poet nonetheless :)

      'Thought-fish' - yes that's the phrase I was looking for ha, it was those shoals I pictured when penning that description alright! Something brimming.

      I know what you mean. I don't refer to myself as a poet either, others do, occasionally (and I am always startled by it) but not me. Or a writer even for that matter (even though that seems an 'easier' term to claim than 'poet') and for that very same reason you state. I feel I have to have numerous published proofs to my name before invoking these terms. But I suppose what I was getting at here was the claiming of the term 'poet' as something else - a condition that is often ridiculed mind you, but one that I think has to be accepted with heart and head before the profession can be realised, or fully embraced. And it's something that maybe goes unnoticed at times in poets, their nature, (the Niall Williams book sparked this whole train of thought into being, as it describes the poetic condition as a gift, a gladness, most definitely a way of living and being and breathing.) The penning of poems is perhaps its end goal, the only rational manifestation, the ash at the end of all the burning.

      The architect comparison is a good one! I agree! Perfection thy name is poetry! What poet was it again who said 'a poem is never finished; merely abandoned.' You're right - they are not finite, sometimes they never feel finished to me. I feel like I have a whole hefty script of half-drafts, and just a handful I can call 'finished.' And yes, I forgot to mention 'joy' in there didn't I? Joy, joy, joy! Joy and wonder to the power of the infinite. The quintessential aspect of poetry writing.

      But you are so right when you say that writing is when you feel like your truest and best self. I heartedly agree! :)


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