John Hartley Williams
In the good old days when I used to travel about Jugoslavia, as it then was, people encountered on the way would go straight to the four vital questions:
Are you married?
I answered all of them truthfully except the last, which I usually made a smaller amount than it was for reasons of tact and solidarity. The third question I answered with: ‘teacher’, and this was received mostly with respect, not the sneer it usually obtained in Britain. It never occurred to me to say ‘poet’ because, in those days at any rate, I hadn’t been published properly, and there had only been a few appearances in magazines that had barely appeared themselves. Today, as I’m no longer in full-time employment, I’d (truthfully) respond with ‘pesnik’. It is, after all, the fact.
Browsing through a few poetry websites recently, I came across a piece on what the author was pleased to call ‘the P-word’. To claim the title of ‘poet’, he observes, can not only kill a conversation, but is actually considered improper by many poets. The reason? It names an aspiration, not an occupation. The article then goes on to display the wormy, self-deprecating false modesty that lies behind this proposition, quoting no less an authority than Robert Graves in support. Graves observed that he did not use the word ‘Poet’ in his passport, but ‘University Professor’, claiming the dull respect this earned from officials avoided complications. I can’t myself ever remember (when there was space for such an entry in the passport) that immigration ever paid any attention to my occupation. In those days the passport control matched face, photo and name and that was that. However, I can’t help feeling that Graves was being either disingenuous here, or perhaps satirical. Why should the occupation ‘Poet’ cause complications? ‘TV journalist’ perhaps. Or ‘Member of Parliament’. But ‘Poet’…?
The writer of the piece obviously thinks that to label yourself ‘poet’ is a form of self-aggrandisement. Worse than that, there is also a kind of self-loathing involved. He quotes the policeman poet Edwin Brock remarking ‘I’d hate to be the kind of shit who gives himself a title like that’. So is it that by self-definition a poet is a kind of shit? Or is it that the person who gives himself the title cannot really be a true poet? If so, what kind of shittiness is involved in entitling yourself a poet? More to the point, why does the constabulary allow the shits to walk around calling themselves poets?
It’s the fragile divide between the genuine and the fake, the tightrope line that poets walk between verity and what sabotages verity, that is causing the problem here. Marianne Moore, reading poetry with ‘a perfect contempt for it’, concludes her poem on the theme like this:
..In the meantime, if you demand on
the one hand.
Or a poet, one might add. A literalist of the imagination, in that memorable phrase (actually borrowed from a critical book on Yeats). Moore’s ‘contempt’ for poetry is actually a contempt for ‘high-sounding interpretations’, or what is ‘so derivative as to become unintelligible’. She hates cant in other words and that is the point. For a true poet, with an interest in raw material in all its rawness, what afflatus could be attached to the self-description ‘poet’? But for the hand-wringing writer of the article on the P-word, quite obviously, the label ‘poet’ carries with it all manner of subterfuges, dishonesties and betrayals – the essence of which is that poets have a tendency to rely on rhetoric when imagination fails, that foetid soup of contrived diction and high-sounding symbols. If it’s the ‘poetic’ you’re after, rather than the raw material of any kind, you’re already half way up the backside of preciosity. Here for example is the ‘surrealist’ David Gascoyne (quoted by our article-writer):
I believe that the poet is distinguished from the ‘ordinary man’ by his attitude towards experience. This attitude, as far as I’m concerned, is one of continual expectancy, which may at times become a state of hyperaesthesia. At the same time I am very doubtful as to whether the ‘ordinary man’ exists at all. Everyone probably has some sort of attitude towards experience, though perhaps neither so constant nor so consciously developed as that of the poet.
Well. The poet is not distinguished from the ordinary man, because he is the ordinary man. Just as ordinary as the most ordinary. Same cravings, same fears and lack of money. Continual expectancy is what ordinary people feel when they wake up in the morning; expectancy is a condition of all human life. As for the question: Does the ordinary man exist? Would anyone but a poseur ask it? Did David Gascoyne ever exist? What an ‘attitude towards experience’ might be is anybody’s guess, but it sounds like a condition a would-be poet with no obvious talent for poetry might suffer from. I know, because I’ve read them, that David Gascoyne translated some of the sublime surrealist poems of Benjamin Peret (the surrealist’s surrealist) but it doesn’t look as if he learned anything from the process.
Our article-writer, still trying to crystallize what it is the label ‘poet’ might convey, now calls up an American authority, the poet Louise Gluck. She writes convincingly – he says – of the insulation of the writer during active composition – from the world, from self, from the past. Definitely a frisson there. But what about the insulation of the bricklayer during active bricklaying – from the world, from self, from the past? What about any ordinary fellow preoccupied with the task in hand? One hefts half a brick, ready to heave it, but the article-writer ploughs on. The lady poet records – he says – the need she has felt for her own writing to connect with the world. With the world? This is pretty sensational stuff. There then follows a coup de grace of linguistic elegance from Lady Gluck, pinning the core of poetic being to the table with the dexterity of a lepidopterist annihilating a moth: ‘What had to be cultivated, beyond a necessary neutrality, was the willingness to be identified with others. Not with the single other, the elect, but with a human community. My wish was to be special. But the representative life I wanted to record had somehow to be lived.’
Here we have the reason why it really might be embarrassing to admit you’re a poet – because ‘poet’ is obviously synonymous with ‘wanker’. This ‘poet’ is concerned not with the raw or the genuine but with herself as a ‘poetic personality’. The poetic is something special. It’s an ‘attitude to experience’ that is self-important yet cloudy, superior yet democratically murky, uninvolved yet condescendingly sympathetic. It takes place in a warm valley of otherwhere, full of gentle sighs. Obviously if this is what being a ‘poet’ entails it would be embarrassing to confess one’s occupation in, shall we say, a railway compartment on the way to Vladivostock. The deluge of old banana skins, shoes and crumpled magazines that would be hurled at one would not be worth it. Better say ‘University Professor’ and have a quiet journey. But my article-writer has not yet finished climbing down into his poetic abyss. He now quotes from Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety Of Influence:
the covert subject of most poetry for the last three centuries has been the anxiety of influence, each poet’s fear that no proper work remains for him to perform….When we open a first volume of verse these days, we listen to hear a distinctive voice, if we can, and if the voice is not already somewhat differentiated from its precursors and its fellows, then we tend to stop listening, no matter what the voice is attempting to say.
Here speaks university professor with fat salary. The notion that poets are so preoccupied with finding a different voice from all their precursors (‘this contest with the dead exacts its price’ declaims our article-writer portentously) that they are somehow psychically sapped by the struggle is just melodramatic horse feathers. The real drama of the poet’s life is that the proper work he or she wants to do has virtually no economic weight. Wage-earning does sap the energy.
‘And what of the future?’ asks our angst-ridden article-writer. His final paragraph is so hideous I cannot bring myself to quote it – but just before he gets to that he tops his own argument (or thinks he does) with a death-dealing raygun quote from the American lady poet. An ‘intensity of awareness’ she suggests is ‘impoverishment’s aftermath and blessing: what succeeds temporary darkness, what succeeds the void or the desert, is not the primary gift of the world but the essential secondary gift of knowledge, a sense of the significance of the original gift…”
The nebulous abstractions (impoverishment’s aftermath’ in an unkind interpretation might be having to sell the Big Issue on street corners), the prim, pursed-lip tone of the utterance proclaiming someone on the verge of saying something Really Big, all of these things combine to suggest that, yes, walking around with the label POET attached to you might be tantamount to having someone pin KICK ME on your backside. I understand the article-writer’s anxiety and must corroborate that in these circumstances it seems wholly justified.
True seriousness, I think, whether of the poetic kind or something else, is located ion an awareness of the gulf between human aspiration and result. As soon as an ‘intensity of awareness’ causes the poet to be hypnotised by the oncoming ball the result is a denture-fracturing smack in the teeth. Randall Jarrell spoke of Marianne Moore’s ‘wonderful lack of arbitrary intensity or violence, of sweep and overwhelmingness and size, of cant, of sociological significance’. In her poem ‘Poetry’ (the longer version, from which I quote), she expresses precisely that contrastive idea, as follows:
nor till the poets among us can be