I am a poet. You are, too, and I hope you think of yourself as one. Believing that you are a poet can be both the easiest and the hardest thing you can do. It is the easiest because, to believe you are a poet, all you have to do is believe. Just say, “I am a poet.” Who, really, can deny that of you? If believing doesn’t work for you, then pull out a sheet of paper right now—actually, if you have a notebook, and you plan to read this book/series of blog, and stay with me for a while, go ahead and get the notebook—and write out a short sentence. Like this:
I am writing a sentence.
It can be any sentence you want to write. Then think of a work that rhymes with the last word of the sentence. In my case, that word is “sentence.” So I will pick “fence.” Then write a sentence that ends with the word your rhyming word.
I am writing a sentence.
It’s like building a fence.
Are you finished? Good. If you weren’t before, now you are a poet. You have written a poem. Your poem is not so different from Ogden Nash’s poem “The Origin of Fleas.”
In the early and middle part of the twentieth century, whether they wanted to or not, everybody had to admit that Ogden Nash was a poet.
And while I am at it, I may as well quote the old doggerel that my mother used to say to me when I made an accidental rhyme:
You are a poet
and don’t know it.
But your feet show it:
They’re long fellows,
and they stink like a Dickin’s son.
Ha, ha, ha. OMG. LMAO. I thought it was funny when I was eight.
Or, if rhyming comes difficult for you, there is another way to be a poet. In your notebook, on the same page, or a different page, it’s your book—I’m not going to tell you how to treat your own notebook—write another sentence or two about someone you love or hate or are afraid of. Anybody. Living, dead, made up. In this sentence compare them and that thing you love/hate/fear about them to something else
Her skin is as soft as rose petals.
My teacher snarled her instructions like a badger.
Dave forgives as easily as a chest freezer.
Did you come up with something? Yes, yes, sure, sure. You don’t think it is very good. I don’t care. You shouldn’t care, yet. All we are doing here is establishing a fact: you are a poet. You are a person who can write powerful emotions or thoughts in language that somehow calls attention to itself as language. Rhyme is one of the ways that poets call attention to their language. Comparisons are another way that poets call attention to their language: what we call similes and metaphors.
So being a poet is easy. All you really have to do is be a human and use language. Listen to children, or sports announcers, comedians, politicians, physicists, rejected lovers, or advertising copy writers—all of them are poets. You don’t need a degree in English from a fancy university. You don’t need to read thousands of books. You don’t need to form writing groups and share your work with friends. You don’t need to publish in journals or in books. You don’t need to win awards. Be yourself and write down what you think and feel, and you are a poet. You are a human and you are using language.
But I also said that being a poet is one of the hardest things in the world. To become a professor, doctor, or lawyer is difficult—there is a lot to learn that we don’t learn just by living our lives, a great deal of studying and test taking and practicing. But then there is a test or a board that will certify you: stamp, you are a professor, doctor, lawyer. You qualify, and you have a certificate that you can frame and hang on the wall.
Two things can then happen. One, you can go out into the world, announce that you are a doctor, get a job, and make a living. With that sheet of paper, you can prove you are a doctor and no one will deny that you are one. Or, two, you can immediately hire yourself out as a taxi driver and drive that taxi for the rest of your life or pick up hammer and nails and begin to make your living building houses. In both cases, you can still say “I am a doctor.” The fact that you are doing something that has nothing to do with your college degrees and training has nothing to do with the fact that you once were certified for that profession.
The funny thing about being a poet, however, is that except in very, very very rare cases—five or ten people in the entire United States at any one time—you will not make a living by being a poet, purely by writing and selling your poems. In addition, no matter how unknown or how famous you are, no matter if you never publish a poem or read one in public or whether you publish a dozen books and win the Pulitzer, there will be someone, maybe many, who will say that you are not a poet. There will be someone who says that you are a pretender, a charlatan, a poseur, a fake. Go get you MFA degree in Creative Writing, and then never write another poem. People will say you are not a poet. Or get your degree in engineering and then in midlife go publish in a bunch of small journals. Then someone will ask you, “What do you do?” And you will answer, “Well, I am a poet.” And they will say. “Okay, yeah, sure, if you say so. What else do you do? Like what do you do for money?”
And the very strange thing is that this dialogue: “’I am a poet.’ ‘No, you are not.’” goes on all across the nation every day and every night, between writers and readers, writers and granting organizations, writers and colleges, writers and publishers, writers and fellow writers, and worst of all within the minds of writers themselves. I have lived with this dialogue a large portion of my life, and for a long time I thought it was just me, that I was the only person who felt this tension and alienation between who I thought I was and who other people thought I was or should be. Between my conception of self and the community’s conception of what makes a self. Between my attitude toward what I thought was the most important thing I did, and what the world values.
And the second very strange thing is that, except for those involved in the argument, nobody cares.
And it doesn’t matter.
For some of us, of course, it is not an easy thing to claim Your Being as poet or writer. I can say that at a relatively early age I felt writing was rewarding emotionally. Then a bit later I the desire to improve grew in me. Nowadays I have the luxury of thinking in retrospect. It is an easier position to judge from. Once we have reached the witch’s house, so to speak, we can trace the crumbs of our life story backward to our homes, however peaceful or harried. Did we leave home with courage and faith in ourselves, or because we felt we needed to find another home? James Hillman, in the Soul’s Code, has returned to us the example and analysis of the ancient Greek thought of the Daimon. It is probably more healthful for one to leave it to others—one’s biographer, one’s psychologist, one’s spouse—to lay analytical grids over the contours of one’s life. But Hillman’s idea is fairly simple—each of us has a Daimon, a spirit, a sense of self, a guardian angel, who helps direct our lives. It will point you toward your vocation or toward the life that is your fulfillment. Call it fate, call it wish fulfillment.
For me, first it was book making. I remember some small compulsion and a fairly large joy in putting together special projects for school. For a long time, I did not have the skills to pull off these projects, but I can remember taking what my sisters had done for their projects in schools and repackaging them (editing?). I can remember providing my mother with texts from books to type out, verbatim, for a science project. Why she or no one punished me for plagiarism I do not know. In any case, my daimon for bookmaking was not harmed.
In fifth grade, I wrote a diary for a pioneer project that today would have attracted the attention of school counselors. In a mere five days, in travel across the U.S. I killed off my entire family through drowning, lightning, Indian attack. The math problems I constructed for this project were exercises in subtractions: if so many soldiers in a fort died each day, how long would it take for the fort to be decimated. My family watched westerns.
By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I had begun writing poems. At the time, I wasn’t much of a reader, but I loved writing little poems in notebooks and then typing them up and binding them in little books with cardboard covers. Look these are my thoughts and it makes me feel good to write them, and they are in little books you can hold.
My father had one simple line when I told him I wanted to be a writer. I could make this a story with a build-up, climax and denouement. I could nuance my language, but I am not in the mood to relive it right now. I’ll give you the punch line, not the joke. Did I tell him I wanted to be a writer. Did I tell him I planned to be a writer? Did I tell him I was a writer? I am thinking I was more hesitant—I would have assumed there was education, apprenticeship. Training. His response was simply: “You’ll never be a writer. It’s not in your genes to be one.” Over the years, I came to the conclusion that such a statement says more about my father than it does about me. That conclusion, of course, is convenient for me. It makes it where I can ignore my father’s skepticism. But, let’s think about it, what do our parents really know about us? And what do we really know about our children. We have difficulty seeing our own innermost desires, our life plan—what makes us thing they can see it?
Besides arguing with my dead father, and trying to show him through various examples of “writer-types” arising from the dregs of lower or working class, or of showing him that his love of books, his constant reading, his iron-hearted mother who was a one-room school teacher, he and she were exactly the genes that that I needed, I don’t know what else to do, but ignore such reactions. I don’t know what kind of genes my father thought I needed in order to become a writer—but it turns out I have some of the exact genes many writers and creative types do have—attention problems, dyslexia, depression, and unsupportive parents. It’s the perfect cocktail for a writer—I’ve seen dozens of cases in biographies, friends, and students.
The main thing I know, looking back, was that my father nested a vulture in my body to eat at my liver. I never became was a conceited, proud, naïve writer who thought the world owed him a living or praise. For a long time I carried my father’s ignorant assessment of my future inside of me, pecking away at my hopes and dreams. I don’t want vultures to feed in you.
The point is, your genius, the key to the house of joy, is or is not hidden. But you know where it is. Maybe it was handed to you early and everyone applauded when you received it. Maybe it was hidden and you caught the twinkling glimmer of it one day out of the corner of your eye, and maybe every time you turned toward it, moved down the sidewalk toward it, the unchained snarling dogs came running at you.
Soon enough, though, you did, or you will retrieve that key. And maybe when you hold it up glimmering, shining in the sun, it speaks and says, “Hello, you found me, now listen. Did you know that you are a poet? I don’t know what kind. I don’t know if you will be famous or rich, but I know that you are a poet. Let’s find our mansion and unlock some secrets. “
So you found the key. Now you have to find the door that it belongs to. The house of poetry has a hundred doors and, at least, a thousand windows. There are lots of way to get in. Where is the house you belong in, and which door opens to you?
I found my key, and I have been exploring the house for some time now. I am going to tell your the story of my searching, and maybe I will help you as you explore and discover you house of poetry.