What whore that must paint, and must put on false locks,
And counterfeit joy in the pangs of the pox?
What beggar’s wife’s nephew, now starved, and now beaten,
Who, wanting to eat, fears himself shall be eaten?
What porter, what turnspit, can deem his case hard?
Or what Dun boast of patience that thinks of a bard?
-- William Shenstone, “The Poet and the Dun”

Neither to laugh nor to weep, but to understand
-- Baruch Spinoza

Like most poets, or so I imagine, I spend a good deal of time thinking about what it means to be a poet. For surely the condition of homo poeticus must provoke introspection. From an objective standpoint, poetry (to paraphrase Heine’s remark about Judaism) seems to be more of an affliction than a vocation. Someone has defined a vocation as the convergence of one’s own deepest desire with the world’s deepest need; but at present the world does not acknowledge the need. Could our sense of vocation, then, be pure self-deception?

     A few decades ago it was in fact common to treat the compulsion to write poetry as a neurosis, an effect of repression or otherwise faulty upbringing. In reaction to this position I asserted for many years that on the contrary, the desire to write poetry is not the effect of repression of other desires but a primary and healthy desire, and if society rejects poetry then society is neurotic. But whatever be the absolute Platonic standard of sanity, in this world it remains true that “‘Tis the majority In this, as all, prevail -- Assent -- and you are sane -- Demur -- you’re straightway dangerous -- And handled with a Chain.”

     Besides, I now think that most of us poets really are neurotic. It is not that poetry itself is a neurotic sympton, rather that neurosis can be induced in poets, as in dogs, by repeatedly inflicted trauma. Consider the following description by Leonard Borenstein, in his “Simple Proposal to the Formalist Community,” of a poetry reading in the great city of New York:

where a poet, whose name you'd all recognize, standing up to introduce the speaker, looked out on the audience of about 25 and said how wonderful it was to see so many people come out on a Saturday afternoon when everyone present surely could have done so many other things--and didn't it prove the power of poetry etc. etc.? And I thought to myself: is he mad?

     I think most poets prefer not to acknowledge, most of the time, just how bad the situation is. When things appear quite hopeless, to pretend they are otherwise is a survival strategy. An insistence on facing the worst is only justified on the assumption that every problem has a potential solution -- an assumption which, due to science’s recent success in solving a certain kind of problem, has today a somewhat better reputation than it perhaps deserves. I happen to come from a scientific family... But it is not just the hope of finding solutions that motivates the scientist. It is a feeling that things as they are are interesting.

     My own take on this at present is thoroughly Marxist and sociobiological. We poets may well represent the first group of downsized employes. About four thousand years ago, when humans learned to record information in marks on external surfaces, we all lost our jobs.

     Now it is known that job loss is a devastating trauma. I once suffered through three years of law school, including a course on labor law. We studied one case where judgment was given against a company for unfairly discharging several employees. I noticed that about half the successful plaintiffs were deceased at the time judgment was given. The professor said yes, that happens a lot. Loss of a job is a terrific blow, and many workers die of it.

     Moreover, for poets it is not a question of losing a job for which one was trained and in which one has acquired experience, investing the most productive years of one’s life. The job of poet is one for which, I am now convinced, we were formed in the womb, in the zygote. The poet, as a human subtype, is a product of evolution. In evolution nothing comes into being that is useless at the time. And poets were at one time very useful.

     The salient feature of the human species, after all, is that its behavior is governed not only by instinct, but by culture transmitted from individual to individual, from generation to generation, from group to group, through the use of verbal language. Among other things this verbally transmitted culture made possible the development of complex tools, but this was a relatively late development, a road not taken by all human groups. The most complex thing about most primitive cultures is and was the system of verbal transmission, the stock of myths, genealogies, laws, incantations, proverbs, all of which had to be remembered. In order to be remembered, the lore of the tribe had to be couched in well-formed formulas, internally coherent and appealing to the senses. That is, there had to be poetry.

     I suspect that the ability to make poetry is more widely distributed than most people imagine. If the climate again became favorable, poetry would spring up everywhere, like the rainforest on the savanna at Gaviotas. There have been whole societies where everybody wrote poetry on some occasion or other. Japanese and Chinese courtiers and courtesans. Native American warriors who felt obliged to meet death with a self-composed “death song.” There must always have been a certain amount of “occasional poetry” written by nonprofessionals at crises or turning-points. Today poets tend to look down on “amateur” poetry. But in the past some poems by amateurs, like the words to “Amazing Grace” or Chidiock Tichbourne’s “Elegy,” have entered the tradition and secured themselves a special place, no doubt because of the intensity of human feeling that brought forth these utterances from ordinarily “unpoetic” souls. I myself have collected two poems by amateurs which I consider quite exquisite. Poetry may be a response available to the human organism generally at moments when it needs to reassert its identity and continuity.

     But besides this widespread poetic ability which makes poetry the most democratic of arts, it must have been advantageous for each group to contain a few individuals who were genetically programmed to go about turning words over in their minds and fashioning them into things. Hence us. The prototypical poet may well not be good for much else besides this activity. It takes so much concentration and energy. It means placing oneself, deliberately, at the crisis-point where one’s existence is called into question, because that seems, for us as for the amateur, to be the point at which poems take shape. At the most intense moments of composition I have sometimes thought to myself, “Drowning must feel like this.” Who would do this voluntarily and on a regular basis if they were not obsessed? By doing most of the work of formulation for oral transmission, the poet freed the rest of the tribe for the concrete tasks of hunting, warfare, food-gathering, child-care, the manufacture of clothing and shelter and utensils. Nowadays it seems we spend half our time being yelled at for not thinking about things which our fellow-humans consider useful, instead of our now-useless poetry. The fortunate among us are those who have other talents and skills, and we are always encouraging one other to develop them -- to become successful computer analysts, for instance, in preference to deepening our knowledge of prosody. No doubt experience in other fields can feed poetry, and a poet must try to know as much about the world as possible. But sometimes it does come to a choice between immersing oneself in some other discipline to the extent demanded today for success in it, and continuing to function as a poet.

     So here we are with this inborn skill and this inborn compulsion to exercise it, this inborn belief that it is of vital importance, that by exercising it we are holding the world together. A belief which, like many forms of faith, is strong enough to persist in the teeth of a total absence of external confirmation. Like the fly against the windowpane we seem programmed to bash ourselves against newly-invented realities, again and again, till we are found on the sill, black and dry, with our little legs turned up.

     But it seems to me that even the uselessness of our calling in the age of externally recorded information -- and still more in the age of commercially manufactured entertainment -- does not entirely account for our wretched condition. After all, in advanced societies the skills of physical combat, so glorious in the days of Homer, are now equally superfluous. But the warriors have not simply faded away; instead, they seem to have become athletes, and as such their stylized performances are exceedingly, even increasingly popular and profitable.

      Am I being unimaginative, looking for the continuation of the ancient bardic role in the wrong places? I still have this image of the Druids in mind, wise wights of both genders sitting around in council and passing the harp. Or lying down in darkened rooms with heavy stones on their stomachs (now how did the stone help? must try that sometime), repeating and composing. It is not as if verbal skills were not being practiced today; look at all the people who do the daily crossword puzzle. All right, there is no money in crossword puzzles, but what about advertising and the legal profession? There the invention and manipulation of verbal formulas does pay (though the verbal component of advertising is of diminishing importance, as the industry prefers more and more to manipulate images directly). Perhaps Shelley just had it backwards: not that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but that lawyers are the real poets of the age. In law school I met a number of other poets. And if you object that advertisers and lawyers sell their souls, hey, there’s nothing new in that. What did a large portion of the repertory of many oral bards consist of? Praise songs, right?

      But the praise song is only one outcome of the struggle between poetry and authority which probably was ongoing since the rhythmic gruntings of the hominid first modulated into measured speech. Western literature begins, in the Iliad, with a clash between the ruler and the diviner (one of the functions of a bard). To remember and to fit words together is, inevitably, also to judge, and judgmental types are not popular with rulers (nor with the submissive). As soon as an alternative way of keeping track of things became available, the ruler types and their intellectual henchmen dispensed with the poets and, at the same time, with the language of poetry, in which things have to fit together. That is the crucial difference between the bard of the praise songs and the advertiser or lawyer; the latter is not only employing his or her skills to say the thing which is not, but is working in a language created specifically for that purpose and thus devoid of beauty. The poet’s gorge rises at it. We who still call ourselves poets, whatever our sins, represent some last bastion of human integrity and freedom.

     But there is the matter of what we do to each other. Zola is supposed to have said that Dante, not having lived among writers, did not know enough about hell.

     Actually, Zola’s statement is not quite true. In his youth Dante did belong to a writers’ group called the Fedeli d’amore, and it appears that the poems of the Vita Nova represent his contributions to the group. Eventually the group broke up despite Dante’s efforts to hold it together, possibly because of the defection of its original leader, Guido Cavalcanti, who professed disaffection with the group’s mystical doctrine (was there, perhaps, also an element of pique at being outshone by the younger poet he had invited to join)? Dante’s disappointment with Cavalcanti is reflected in the Inferno, where he meets Cavalcanti’s father and refers to Guido’s “disdain”; Guido was still living at the purported moment of Dante’s vision, but was soon to die of a fever contracted in an exile to which the governing body of Florence, of which Dante was a member, had condemned him. Hm. Material for a tragedy perhaps.

     But whatever happened at the end between Cavalcanti and Alighieri, I for one suspect that the short happy life of the Fedeli d’amore was the source of whatever knowledge Dante may have had of Paradise. Most of us I hope have some memory of a period when we knew other poets and exchanged poems with them just for the sheer fun of it, like jazzmen reacting off each other, intertwining their solos in a collective work that was unrepeatable (at least until the musicologists showed up with their tape recorders). Everyone knew that this interchange, and not any of the solos comprising it, was the aim of all, the summit of human happiness.

     I hope most of us can remember something like that. I suspect, however, that few such memories are acquired in creative writing classes or workshops. To be fair, I can remember one or two experiences where the workshop was led by a cultivated, civilized, broadly educated person, open to a variety of perspectives, careful to acknowledge and appreciate before criticizing, capable of enjoying what someone else was doing and free from the belief that he was called on to correct the errors of instinct and enforce the dictates of fashion. On the other hand I’ve known some creative writing teachers who had many soul-murders on their consciences. And where the group is leaderless -- but on this subject let my one exercise in gothic horror speak for me:


The soul is naked among enemies,
  And nowhere does it take more grievous wounds
    Than where "well-meaning" poets hack away
      At one another's poems. Merciless

As angels of the IRS, they pounce
  On any word that each rules not OK,
    Seldom standing still to gaze and guess
      At the moving shape on the poem's horizon

Or hear the word the poem cannot quite say.
  The poet, on his knees, starts to confess
     His errors as they're fingered one by one.
      Soon from his comrades' hands he takes the knife,

Cuts the poem's tie to his own breath
  And does the rest of what the pack wants done.
    Its maker's eyes lit with thirst for its life-
      Blood are the last thing the poem sees.

The corpses clog the litmags by the ton.

     Of course, self-hatred and mutual hostility are problems for all disadvantaged or disparaged groups. A social phobia against any group is inevitably reflected in the attitudes of the group itself. And in our society there is such a thing as POETOPHOBIA. As the saying goes, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”

     Have you ever read Baudelaire’s “The Benediction?” It’s one of his longer poems, placed near the beginning of The Flowers of Evil, and it talks about what poets can expect from their fellow-humans. On first reading it, in high school, I was offended by the misogyny which distracts from the poem’s main point, and thought the main point was exaggerated. And yet I had already encountered poetophobia in its pure form. When I was nine my brother picked out a record at the supermarket that related the deprogramming of one Daffy Duck, who confessed as follows:

Some children like to play or sit on Daddy’s knee,
But all I want to do is write some poh-wuh-try.

Needless to say, though I forget just how, the misguided anatid was eventually cured of writing poh-wuh-try. I got my mother to throw the record out; perhaps I should have had it put away as documentation. As a poet one gets the shaft in so many subtle ways, and one cannot document the way an interviewer’s eyes glaze over if one once lets slip that one has this proclivity. But the one couplet hints, to the extent possible in a record made for children, at that indescribable quality of vulgarity that one finds in Nazi jingles about Jews, in those awful anti-Semitic lapses of Eliot and Cummings, in racist and homophobic jokes as well as in the misogynist humor everyone is so used to. The grimace of the hominid that does not want to become human. And that seems today, strangely enough, to have enlisted so much advanced technology on its side.

     I see a lot of today’s poetic shibboleths as ways in which we execute the decrees of Poetophobia on one another. No rhyme, no meter, no archaism, no poetic language or “noble” tone, no love poems, no nature poems, no didactic poems, no religious poems -- “What (Verbatim) Poetry Editors Don’t Want”, as Clifford E. Landers titled a poem in The Minnesota Review, makes forbidding and depressing reading. Best to stick to poems about cleaning the refrigerator, and try to sound like you are talking to the person on the next stool at a bar. And these editors are (mostly) poets, right? They’re us.

     Yes, they’re us. And we’re them. But an editor is not necessarily a poet at the moment of making editorial choices. Nor is the editor necessarily a reader, hardly ever the poet’s Implied Reader (relaxed, receptive, willing to be pleased). The editor is someone under pressure to eliminate, someone with the power of life and death over another’s word -- and everyone knows what the possession of even the teeniest bit of power will do to almost anyone. (Especially when the exercise of power necessarily involves an act of cruelty, like killing animals at a meat packing plant -- or rejecting poems. It has been repeatedly shown that a person compelled to perform cruel acts becomes either desensitized or sadistic.) At the same time, the editor is aware of hypothetical readers, persons whose faces are hidden from the editor as the editor’s face is hidden from the poet, and who represent a society in which, as noted, Poetophobia is rampant. In this situation, anxiety is bound to arise. If I make a wrong choice -- if for instance I choose something that is (gasp) sentimental -- will they make fun of me? Better play it safe. The editor does not have the poet’s motives for risk-taking (the poem’s insistence on itself, the maker’s identification with the product). Of course, when poets start to write for editors (as they are trained to do in most “creative” writing courses), the poetophobia of the surrounding society is reflected into the creative process itself. The result is much poetry that virtually no one reads -- it is unreadable -- it is only good for the accumulation of publication credits. And then once a year there is that thirty-day memorial service known as Poetry Month.

     I hope it’s clear that I don’t mean this personally. It’s the mechanics of the thing, it’s the way the system works. The framers of the U.S. Constitution understood that a just society can’t depend entirely on pure good intentions; they understood that justice is also mechanical. Hence all those checks and balances. It is no particular person’s fault that the system of publication which over the last couple of hundred years has evolved in the process of taking over from the vanishing community, is a kind of machine for the suppression of poetry.

     They talk a lot about abuse these days. Including psychological abuse. Well, what is it but abuse when we are told that when we have labored to give our deepest thoughts and feelings a beautiful and dignified form, the only thing to do with this object is to submit it (that word!), again and again and yet again and again and again, to editors who nine times out of ten, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, will, indeed must, send it back with a more or less polite printed note? (“We receive 3,000 submissions a year, accept 35-50.”) One doesn’t, these days, read books advising battered wives to go back for more. In psychology textbooks the effects of rejection on the rejectee (also on the rejector) are described. I have never heard it suggested that repeated rejection caused a person to become more open to the beauty of the world, wiser, more generous, or more creative. There is no reason to think that these effects are different when the principals are poets; no reason to think that the steady pummeling of rejection does anything different to the poet (and his or her poetry) from what it does to anyone else. Yet we are adjured, by teachers, colleagues, and a legion of more or less legal con persons who stand to make money off our hopeless obsession: “Never give up!”

     What’s to be done? Can anything be done? I revert to my initial observation that poetry in the present-day world is not a vocation but an affliction. We who are afflicted with the compulsion to write poh-wuh-try should face the fact that with respect to advanced technological society this compulsion is a disability. It may also be considered as an orientation, a love for what one is not supposed to love (in this case, human language).

     Once having admitted this, we might perhaps stop trampling each other for the ridiculous prizes which a poetophobic society keeps dangling in front of our noses. We might then think of organizing the way other disabled and minority groups do: to affirm what we are, to support one another in our struggles with society, and to petition society for respect and accommodation.

     This, then, is my modest proposal: that we think of ourselves not as more or less talented, but as “differently abled” and differently oriented. This of course sacrifices our pride, the delusion we all cherish that my poems will be the ones to survive the debacle of this era, that my name will join the roll of poets’ names that are remembered (how many hundreds for the many millions who have lived, breathed and sung since Word One). But it frees us to become a group of people who need each other, for whom numbers are an advantage rather than a disadvantage.

     Let me mention just a few of the things that we could do, in order to pursue the three aims enumerated above: affirmation of what we are, support of one another in our struggles with society, and petitioning society for respect and accommodation.

     Affirmation of what we are means first of all meeting as often as possible to hear one another, not to criticize but to enjoy and understand. (In my experience criticism is more often harmful than helpful; under present circumstances, we could use at least a rest from it.) It could also mean an effort to better understand this peculiar tendency that we share. Are there other traits with which it tends to be associated? Could an objective test for it be devised? What special needs does the compulsion to write poetry create? There is a lot of folk wisdom on these questions, and objective research would probably substantiate at least some of it. Such objective knowledge would help to give us a solider existence in this very objective-minded society, and could serve as a basis for requests for accommodations. At the least, an objective test for poetic ability would help us to identify, from an early age, those who share our peculiarity. We could then encourage them to identify with us, to “come out” as poets, rather than putting them through a decades-long ordeal of rejection before the survivors are finally admitted to the ranks.

      Once having developed, in short, some solidarity, we could put it to other groups with an interest in one aspect or other of justice, conservation or spirituality, that they need us as advocates, as proponents of a broad vision of justice. (The name “Eurydice” means “wide justice,” did you know that?)

     Further, in the interests of our own self-defense, we could try to develop methods of breaking the spell of a “popular” “culture” devised for the corruption and exploitation of the people. There are quite a few people now who feel some concern about what this culture is doing to the human being. We poets should be saying loudly, clearly and unanimously to these people that they need us. To get this across we would have to drop some of the snobbish attitudes by which poets have compensated themselves for their powerlessness. No more making ourselves feel superior by sneering at Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.” (We haven’t made a tree yet, have we?) We need to stop putting down what is well meant if perhaps inept -- save our putdowns for what is not well meant.

     I think we could also start setting down and sorting out our feelings and perceptions about the law. Indeed, it is hard to see the limit to the possibilities if we could just once more rehabilitate poetry as a language of discourse, a language in which it is possible to say things.

     I’m not suggesting that we should take to organizing instead of writing poems. A lot of the work of organization would consist in writing poems to people. Both the fun-work and the grunt-work could be done in the time presently wasted on the Sisyphean slavery of “submission.” Just think of the stupendous waste of time, of paper, of toner, of postage. Think of the concentration that goes into the composition of cover letters. If every poet in the United States were to STOP ALL THAT RIGHT NOW and resolve to write only to those to whom they have something specific to say, and from whom they can reasonably expect a sensible answer, there’d be explosion of creative energy like nothing ever before.

To any editor who may be reading this: with some imagination, the transformation I’m suggesting need not put anyone out of work. Editors could in fact encourage and facilitate the transformation by attaching themselves to the local Poets’ Union, taking part in its exchanges and eventually printing the poems they had found most meaningful in the context of these exchanges. I don’t believe editors would lose by limiting their contributors’ pool to local poets and their correspondents (who could be world-wide). If the excellence of a literary corpus were proportional to the volume from which it is selected, then the back volumes of any one of our leading literary magazines should contain vaster treasures of poetry than those bequeathed to us by the Athenians or the Elizabethans. But such is not the case. It seems that most significant poetry has been produced by relatively small groups of people amongst whom, for some reason or other, something significant was happening. Furthermore, it is more than dubious whether being overwhelmed with material to choose from really facilitates the identification of what is worthwhile. “The better is the enemy of the good.” The poems that stand out in a field of 2000 may not be good for anything except for catching the eye. Like the billboards along an eight-lane highway. And finally, what with rising printing and mailing costs and dwindling readerships and funding sources, many editors today are in the market for alternatives.

     Right beside this window at which we keep hurling ourselves, there is an open door. Will we see it in time?

First Published in Mind Matters Review