Some time ago I wrote a piece about not being a poet: not feeling I could claim the skill, the sensitivity, the specialness that people who are poets self-evidently have. It was slightly tongue-in-cheek and included a poem called I’m Not a Poet which ended by saying (more poetically than this, I hope) that there were moments when I did seem to be a poet. I’m quite sure that among the ranks of those who consider themselves non-poets such moments often occur, when we touch into poetry and perhaps don’t even recognise it.
In the post before this one I included some poems (quickly reduced to one poem when I found out it might stop me publishing them), and said again that I knew I wasn’t a ‘real’ poet. I suppose I felt that would let me off the hook if people didn’t find the poems very good. The response I got surprised me: not only that some people (some poets, I should say) liked the poems, but that they were telling me I was a poet. Someone in my writing group declared me ‘officially a poet’ and someone else sent me a picture of Hagrid from Harry Potter with the caption: ‘Yer a poet’, which made me laugh but also made me wonder if I did have to start laying claim to the title.
The trouble is that I still don’t see ‘poet’ as a job title in the way that I see ‘novelist’ as one. A novelist is someone who writes novels – good, bad or indifferent. I write novels – good, bad or indifferent – therefore I am a novelist. I don’t think it says very much about who I am other than the fact that I’m interested in human nature and like making up stories. But saying someone is a poet implies that they write poetry and not just poems – and the fact that there is a distinction means that in some sense a poet becomes something special. We can all look at a poem and say ‘This isn’t poetry’ even if it meets all the requirements of the form, whereas we wouldn’t look at a novel and say ‘This isn’t a novel’ – however bad it was – unless it failed in some very basic way to do what novels do.
So to say that you are a poet to me inescapably implies that you are laying claim to a certain kind of skill and sensibility – to being a certain kind of person. The connection between that and actually writing poetry is not entirely straightforward. Not long ago I was at an event where members of the public had the opportunity to read their own poems. There was one person there who I thought must surely be a real poet. He introduced himself like a poet and read his work in a proper poetry voice – you know, where the intonation goes up at the end of the line to show you it’s not prose and make it harder to understand. Before very long, however, it became clear that the poems themselves were excruciatingly banal and unskilled. This was someone who was ‘being a poet’ without being a poet.
In his autobiography World Within World the poet Stephen Spender describes his first meeting with T S Eliot. As far as I remember, Spender was still an undergraduate. When Eliot asked him what he wanted to do in life he replied eagerly, “Be a poet.” Eliot’s response, as measured as you might expect, went something like this: “I can understand your wanting to write poetry but I’m not sure I know quite what you mean by ‘be a poet’.” Like the man described above, Spender in his youthful idealism wanted to embody his idea of what a poet was, to use it as an identity. The difference, of course, was that he had talent as well. But it wasn’t ‘being a poet’ that enabled him to write poetry; it was simply writing poetry.
Which sums up my discomfort at calling myself a poet. Not only would it require me to be that kind of person, which I sometimes am and sometimes definitely am not; I would also feel constrained to produce poems that I could classify as those of a real poet. And some of my poems may be that, while some certainly may not. The answer, though, isn’t to say that I’m not a poet – which again would be a constraint and would stop me writing. The best formulation I can come up with is that I’m not not a poet: I can be open to the possibility of writing poetry and equally to the times when that doesn’t happen, without having to become something either way. To paraphrase the great Thai Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah: “Don’t be a poet. Don’t be an anything. Just be free.”