I wrote this poem a long time ago, when I was even less confident about writing poems (I won’t say poetry) than I am now. Apologies to the friends (mainly poets) who have already seen it.
I’m Not a Poet
His flashing eyes and floating hair.
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes in holy dread,
For he on honey dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of paradise.
(Kubla Khan – Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
At school I was always told
I could never be a poet.
A poet was someone whose eyes
were made differently from ours,
who saw God, or Nature, or Beauty
in the street among the traffic,
who lived in other worlds than this
or in a land called Imagination
where words grew like unheard-of fruit
in strange new colours,
who sipped tea through the exquisite filter
of a refined sensibility, and didn’t take sugar,
whose wrecked life earned immortality
as Suffering transmuted into Art,
whose shopping list always rhymed.
Nobody wove a circle round me once;
our milk came in bottles from the Express Dairy,
honeydew was melon we had as a treat
but the pips never made me speak poetry
and, try as I might, the world I knew
kept coming back when I told it to go away.
My words tripped over themselves
or were already bought and sold like bruised apples,
my eyes needed glasses to see anything much
and nothing on our shopping list rhymed.
But sometimes, even though I was not a poet,
the light filled me, and then I saw.
My sensibility bcame sensible;
my words spoke from the soles of my feet.
Then I needed sunglasses to cover my flashing eyes
and my school hat to hold down my floating hair.
I still tend to think I’m not a real one and there’s something about poetry I haven’t really ‘got’ – that poets are a special sort of people who will only admit me to their number (sometimes) as a courtesy, with the slightly condescending smile that people reserve for amateurs trying to do something only professionals do. Now I know that isn’t really true: proper poets have liked my poems in just the same way that they have liked poems by card-carrying poets. Nevertheless I would hesitate to call myself a poet more than I would hesitate to call myself a novelist. I’m not a published novelist and I have published a couple of poems – admittedly in rather obscure places – but still the title ‘poet’ has never quite alighted on me.
Last Sunday I read some of my poems for the first time, to an audience of poets, storytellers and singers. Some of those poets have already published collections and some, not yet published, are certainly publishable. I felt enormously proud of myself for doing it and even more proud that these real poets didn’t seem to think I shouldn’t have done it. In fact I felt I’d been admitted to their number. Perhaps I could even send off some of my poems to magazines, as our tutor for the module rather unfortunately entitled ‘Writing with a Poet’s Eye’ encouraged us – and me personally – to do. He’s certainly a proper poet, a very distinguished one, and (I nearly said ‘but’) he took my work just as seriously as anyone else’s. Wow, I thought, perhaps I can call myself a poet too. But somehow it didn’t stick. Now that I’m not working so hard on my novel I’ve been starting to revise some of the poems that I haven’t properly finished, or wrote a long time ago when I had even less idea of what I was doing than I have now. I enjoy the careful crafting and polishing, and – if I’m honest – I also enjoy the idea that maybe some of them might possibly appear in print. I haven’t yet sent any out, though: I suspect the nice cosy fantasy is more comfortable than the cold reality of rejection. But if I dare to send out my novel – which I do – why shouldn’t I dare to take that step too?
Hmm. Of course it’s a question of deciding which poems to send, and where to send them… I think I know, if I’m honest, which ones work as they are, which need a bit of buffing up and which still have a long way to go. But poems, when you come back to them, have a habit of shouting all their infelicities at you, so that you think: God, how did I ever believe that was OK? And of course poets do rework the same poems again and again, sometimes for years. So I could delay infinitely, if I chose. But why not try, another voice says. What is there to lose? They’re not published now, so if they get rejected it’ll only be a return to the status quo. If I ever tried to publish a collection – even just a tiny little pamphlet-ette – I would have to have published some single poems first. That’s how it works: you have to build up form. As a poet. Or should I say A Poet – that special kind of person who goes round writing Poetry with a capital ‘P’, unlike the rest of us who write prose with a small ‘p’.
I doubt if I’ll ever be able to think of myself as A Poet – see my friend’s blog Mome Raths & Mended Rhymes for some good reasons why not – but if you break it down, writing poems and submitting them for publication is no different from submitting any other sort of writing. If you are a writer – of whatever kind – then generally speaking you want to be published. And I am a writer of whatever kind, ergo… I suppose I could always add a little footnote saying, “I’m not really a poet, honestly, but perhaps you might think this was a poem if you looked at it from the right angle.” That way I could make the most of my non-poet status and get a few more rejections into the bargain. Alternatively, of course, I could just send it off and see what happens – like anyone else who, poet or not, tries to publish their poems.