I remember some years ago attending a seminar of poets at which the great British poet Basil Bunting went around the table asking each participant why he or she wrote poetry. To each response he said, "Wrong!" or "That's not a good reason." At the end, we all waited for him to tell us his good reason for writing. But he never did, just changed the subject abruptly.
So poetry remains a mystery to me, even after almost sixty years of reading it, writing it, and, it seems, endlessly talking about it. What makes a poet, and what makes poetry?
It's discouraging how little I know for sure about poetry after so much time. It doesn't help much, either, to look at what others have said over the years. William Hazlitt's "Poetry is the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself" isn't much help, nor Robert Frost's "Poetry is what is lost in translation." When they talk about poetry, most poets get, well, poetic. Worst of all was the always (I think deliberately) enigmatic Allen Ginsberg: "I have a new method of poetry. All you got to do is look over your notebooks... or lay down on a couch, and think of anything that comes into your head, especially the miseries... Then arrange in lines of two, three or four words each, don't bother about sentences, in sections of two, three, or four lines each." Maybe that sort of thing worked for him, but his recipe is probably not much help for the rest of us.
Maybe it's best to start with a couple of things I know poetry isn't:
Poetry isn't raw self-expression. There are plenty of yowlers out there, who think the essence of poetry is shouting about how they feel. Some yowlings, admittedly, even make it into the pages of The New Yorker. But yowlers aren't poets. They haven't paid their dues. Poetry is more than expression; it's communication. And real communication takes work, discipline, and a respect for writing as an art form.
Poetry isn't decoration. Actually, some poetry is, the kind you see on mantlepieces at Christmas time, the sort of thing that comes in the mail from your elderly aunt. I have no quarrel with decoration, but the purpose of decoration is to soothe, while the purpose of serious poetry is -- should be -- to disturb.
Poetry isn't proof that you have a heightened, more refined sensibility than other people. Some of us read and write poetry. Others go bowling. Bowling, done right, requires plenty of discipline, intensity of purpose, attention to detail. If you love poetry, love it, but there is no need to put on airs.
OK, then. After we have disposed of the pretensions and the awful poses that sometimes surround poetry, what is left, that might make someone call you, or me, a poet?
It's very simple, in my opinion. You are a poet if, and only if:
And Adrienne Rich gives the poet's sense of the cosmic importance of language in the scheme of things: "Poetry is above all a concentration of the power of language, which is the power of our ultimate relationship to everything in the universe."
Or, taking the passion for language to an extreme I'm not sure I can endorse, Montaigne rhapsodized, "Poetry reproduces an indefinable mood that is more amorous than love itself. Venus is not so beautiful all naked alive, and panting, as she is here in Virgil." Different strokes for different folks, as they say.
Have you always been a reader of poetry? Virgil in the Latin may not be your dish, but do the tocsins of Milton, for example, roll around in your head, the cannonades of Whitman, the light, insistent melodies of Keats? If not, what kind of poet can you expect to be?
Maybe, if we're reviewing what poets have said is the essence of poetry, it might be best to end with another comment by Robert Frost: "Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat."
Conrad Geller's Series on Poetic Forms: