Thursday, January 15, 2009

Secret, Solitary, a Spy

In a recent blog post, Kathz talks about how she won a prize in a poetry competition, and of the experience of attending the prizegiving. Kath says of her poetry-writing: " I've spent most of my life trying to conceal this embarrassing little habit."

Why would someone say that? I mean someone who appreciates and understands poetry, and has learnt the craft of writing it?

Of course, I know why. I've said and thought it myself, as have several poets I know. One reason I think is that the public perception of poetry is still conditioned, after 200 years, by Romanticism, with its notion of the (largely male) poet as a being apart, which obscured the idea of poetry as a craft, and replaced it with the idea that poems were the result of a tortured or particularly sensitive soul. Naturally, it's rather embarrassing to be associated with that notion now.

But there's something else. It's common for writers to lead double-lives, maintaining a career and domestic life that is entirely separate to their poetic activities. Wallace Stevens is a classic example of this, as a successful businessmen who preferred not to discuss his poetry, and certainly kept it out if his office. Stevens famously wrote "I have no life except in poetry". In his introduction to a selected poems of Stevens, John Burnside discusses this statement, and further quotes a letter of Stevens in which he writes: "I certainly do not exist from nine to six, when I am at the office... There is no everyday Wallace, apart from the one at work, and that one is tedious.- At night I strut my individual state once more".

For myself I can say that no-one at the IT company I work for - and I've known some colleagues for many years - has any idea that I've got anything to do with poetry (unless they read this blog, which is unlikely). And I want to keep it that way. I'm not comparing myself with Wallace Stevens - it seems likely that the mental processes which produce major art are essentially the same as those that produce minor art. I'd agree with Burnside when he says, speaking of Stevens' double life, "It is a life every poet leads to a greater or lesser extent. Or, rather, it is the discipline poets must master in order to sustain that mysterious entity, a private life".

Of course, the notion of a private life is becoming more and more marginalised in our culture, but that's a discussion for another day.


John B-R said...

Everyone at my work knows that I make poems. Many of the things they say and do get into my poems, which I then show them. I don't have 2 lives. I've never been good at compartmentalizing, to put it mildly. Yet, I too feel slightly weird thinking of myself as a "poet". I think it has less to do with the culture around me - tho all that romantic " tortured genius crap" does figure in - than with my sense that to think "I'm a poet" is to limit oneself. I mean, if I'm a poet I have to make ... "poetry." If it's "poetry" it has to have, say, sound effects. Or whatever it is that makes something poetry. So what is it if I make something in which sound effects - or whatever- doesn't figure (as if language can have no sound effects, but I think you know what I mean; what if the sound effects are just "normal" ones?)? So I prefer to think "I just make stuff. Most of it's out of words." But when anyone asks, I do say, "I'm a poet" - because it's easier than explaining what I mean by all of the above. Of course, these days, ask Joseph beuys, we're all artists, and all arts are one.

Ed Baker said...

when I am asked "what do you do?" or "what are you doing?"

(this is usually in reaction to my writings or drawings)

I reply: "About what?"

reaction/response of mine is reason (I suppose) that I have only one friend and two readers! one recently died


with 1.3 million on line mags out there... how do "you poets" keep track of 'first writes/rights'? It is boo-gelling my mind!

Alan Baker said...

That's an interesting point John (as ever), and I think that may well be a factor in my own reticence. It's similar to not wanting to be typecast as a dreamy poet: you don't want to be typecast into someone who writes 'poetry'. Me neither (though my productions are probably nearer to the popular view of what poetry is).

I definitely compartmentalize my life - to an unhealthy degree and Rose is always trying to encourage to open it up. So maybe it's a personality thing. Martin Stannard was, at the call centre he worked at, always open about being a poet.

Ed: I like your 'about what' response, which might imply that poetry and activism (in whatever sense) are related. As for 'rights' on the web - I pretty much accept that anything published on the web is impossible to protect - that's the price I pay for getting the chance to access a huge audience (potentially).

David Lumsden said...

Interestingly, to me it is your life in IT which comes as something of a surprise ... I too work in IT ... hmmm, which then is the 'embarrassing little habit'?

Alan Baker said...

Yes, quite. I tend to keep the IT habit a secret as well. I'm sure you understand...

John B-R said...

Have you ever worked with the poetic constraint of IT language/vocabulary?

Alan Baker said...

It's something I've thought about a lot. I used IT terms in a poem called 'February Hotel', but it'd be interesting to push it further. I might just try it (then you can appropriate it John...)

richard lopez said...

i've come to this discussion late but i must say i find this post rather bracing and for some reason a cause for hope. perhaps because i also work in a field that is far outside poetry and no one in the office knows that i'm a poet. i certainly don't hide my obsessions and my reading but the subject of me being a writer has so far never come up. should i come clean if i'm someday asked? i don't know tho i tend, or try, not to compartmentalize my life at all.

i find that romantic solitary genius crap too. i try to take my life and my obsessions in its totality. i'm not at all ashamed to admit that i write poetry, i read poetry and that i identify as a poet. just that the subjects rarely if never come up. my friends and family know and tolerate my obsessions too. but to them being a poet is i think a mild source of amusement as well as being a big yawn.

Alan Baker said...

Hi Richard

I wouldn't want to advise you to compartmentalize your life like I do, and to advise you to 'come out' would be rather hypocritical... I suspect that how one handles these things is down to one's personality. It's interesting that you refer to obsessions - that's how I'd describe my poetic activities (including editing and publishing). I think single-mindedness is essential if your trying to fit being a 'poet' into the hectic process of earning a living.

Here's a quote I thought relevant to the discussion, and particularly what John said ("to think 'I'm a poet' is to limit oneself"):

"I never thought of myself as a poet, to tell you the truth. I always thought that poetry is the verdict that others give to a certain kind of writing. So to call yourself a poet is a kind of dangerous description. It's for others; it's for others to use."

Leonard Cohen

richard lopez said...

alan, i do think the noun 'poet' is, to paraphrase an irish poet, a powerful word. but i don't think it needs to be shied away from. there are poems and people who write poems. they are called poets. nothing terribly mystical or mysterious about that. i write poems and i identify as a poet.

i suppose it might be taken as a fairly pretension gambit to take but i don't think the poets i admire from the past, cavafy, crane, rimbaud, villon, catullus, are rolling over in their graves if i'm also putting words together in a way that approximates poetry.

besides, i have a conciet: that all poets, past, present and future are all brothers and sisters. the family is fairly dysfunctional but we are related by our shared obsessions just the same.

Alan Baker said...

I take your point Richard: to say something like "I'm not worthy of the title 'poet'" is mystifying the title - presenting oneself as a 'suffering romantic' instead of a craftsperson.

I like the 'brothers and sisters' idea.

Ed Baker said...

didn't use the "p" word once in this essay... you think that I have a
"future" in Poetry? or Art?

I... think...that...I...
s=p=e=l=l=e=d..all.thee ....wds......k.o.r.e.k.t.l.y

(this tyme)... how-ever, trbl w punctuation & narrative& manners-isnms

Alan Baker said...

Ed - that's not an essay it's a poem! In the Poundian style. Nice.

I like that magazine - good stuff on Pound and an essay on Bunting and WW2. Thanks for pointing me to it.

Ed Baker said...

they are local went to college U of Md with Carlo early 60's

lots of good "stuff" in each issue! likr here:

Brad Haas teaches a the college down the street..

I think Carlo yet has an Antiquarian Book Shoppe over in Hyattsville..

Carlo and I were on steps to the Student Union talking to Eddie Gold and Rudd Fleming when some girl came running down the stairs crying and very upset "He's been shot!" "who?" The president."

spend some time re all the (on line issues) issues... lots of Pound Zukofsky Cox Kent Johnson Rosmarie Waldrop etc