The title of poet

We like to think of poets as being a bit like shamans. The Greek word poetes means “maker,” and I gather it had thaumaturgic overtones at one time. True shamans, of course, almost never seek the role, but have it thrust upon them as the result of an extreme spiritual or existential crisis. In her recent “Considering the Other” column at Read Write Poem, Ren Powell noted that some people harbor a similar notion about poets. “They feel that the title of poet is something they should not take upon themselves, but rather something that should be conferred by others.”

Well, maybe. But writing poetry is actually a pretty ordinary thing, not at all comparable to faith-healing or traveling to the spirit world. To me, it’s a craft just like woodworking, maybe slightly more advanced than hanging drywall, but not much. Poetry may be necessary to maintain the vitality of a language and may help keep the mind limber, but that doesn’t make it the special province of elites — quite the opposite. As the Nicaraguan poet Roque Dalton once wrote, “Poetry, like bread, is for everyone.” It doesn’t require any special kind of intelligence to write it. Anyone who uses language — any human being — can, and probably should, learn to play with language in an artful manner. It might have to take the form of rap or rock lyrics to gain true mass acceptance, and its evil twin the slogan may threaten to erase the boundary between truth and lies, but in one form or another, poetry is virtually inescapable.

If anything distinguishes a poet from any other language-user, it’s her extreme sensitivity to nuance. Shouldn’t we worry, then, that so many poets find the label “poet” more than a little uncomfortable? Ren’s column was titled, “I Hereby Confer on You the Title of Poet,” and her conclusion was: stop acting ashamed about the title. If you write poetry, you’re a poet. But the discomfort is perhaps not so easily exorcised. In my case, I’m wary of reinforcing the misconception that being a poet is what matters. I don’t want to be anything. I just want to write.

And then there’s the problem that my prose and poetry are constantly shape-shifting into one another to the point where I can barely tell them apart anymore. I could just call myself a writer, but that word too has somehow gained a ridiculous mystique. So I’m happy instead to call myself a blogger or an editor — maligned occupations barely more respectable than a garbage collector. Then again, in my ideal society, garbage collectors would be among the most revered citizens, entrusted with the training of all corporate managers and public servants. My neighbor pumps septic tanks for a living, and he is, I’ve come to learn, a very wise man.


Much of the preceding comes from a comment I made on Ren’s column — actually one of the less interesting comments in that thread. It seemed just barely worth preserving here.

12 Replies to “The title of poet”

  1. Dave, this sounds agreeably sensible in many ways but completely leaves out that very delicious sensation that the late Tom Disch called “the lyric gush”–unexpected and magical stream of words–and that weird feeling one occasionally gets of going to the fount of things. Fire and madness and out-of-the-body travels! Let us have immortal cake!

    Marly: poet, former diaper scrubber, home garbage collector, short story writer, ferrywoman, novelist, tween and teen herder, etc.

    1. Well, I couldn’t put everything in — that would risk diluting my main point. But I’m not sure that the joy of immersion in the task of writing is essentially different from the joy any other artist or craftsman experiences. When the ancient Daoist philosophers wrote about this, they used the example of woodworkers, archers, and cooks.

  2. What a deep thoughtful discussion. I was struck first by this statement: I am occupied by poetry. I am trained to write poetry. I do not make a living writing poetry. Two out of three dictionary definitions isn’t bad? Substitute visual art for poetry in my case and that’s what is disturbing and so true. The discussion does refer to other kinds of artists so I’m not saying anything new, just agreeing. It’s a symptom of our society, I think, that if you aren’t bringing home a fat paycheque every week, you are not successful. I also connect with Marly’s sign off in the comment above as to our other occupations, heh. So your final comment, Dave, is right on.

    1. Hi Marja-Leena – I’ll admit I’ve been known to envy artists for the money they can sometimes make, but thanks for the reminder that those rewards generally go only to the most driven — and those who don’t have family or other obligations that prevent them from total, single-minded focus on The Work.

  3. Pingback: dave bonta’s ‘the title of poet’ »
  4. I just came across this link which seems relevant to the discussion:
    (titled “You Are What You Do”)
    Oh, and in Scotland, a “makar” is a poet or bard – not too far from “maker”

  5. I don’t think of myself as a writer of poetry, but more of a maker of it. Perhaps since I came in quite late in life to the poetry field, both as reader and writer/maker/scribbler, I have no problem with the title of ‘poet’ as it does have a certain romance to it.

    It also implies somebody who is poor financially, and yeah baby…that’s me all over!

    As always, you give good things to think about.

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