The poet isn’t defined by what he writes. Some poets never write a single line. Some people write hundreds of verses and will never really be poets.
The poet isn’t defined by how he or she lives. Not every drunk is a poet, and most poets aren’t drunks. Anyone can adopt a Bohemian lifestyle – it won’t make one a poet any more than it makes one a Bohemian.
What then defines the poet? Perhaps this: how he perceives, feels and expresses all the phenomena and sensations coming around and through him. And what common thread runs through the diverse lives of poets, through their incongruous personalities?
~ Lorca stepping between the guns on the morning of his assassination.…
~ Hart Crane diving into a ship’s propeller….
~ Rimbaud, racing for life in Africa after shooting his lover, finally coming home to die of syphilis….
~ Camille Claudel, driven mad by love, destroying her own work….
~ Siefert handing out his poems mimeographed when the government bans his work….
~ Vallejo starving as he writes about the thin blade of loneliness….
~ Van Gogh’s ear rejected by a whore….
~ Pascal’s slashed wrists floating in the ruby water of his bathtub….
~ Artaud running with the mad….
~ Sylvia Plath’s head in the cold hissing oven….
~ Chatterton eating rat poison….
~ Hemingway blowing his brains into the orange juice….
~ Berryman flying off a bridge….
~ Burroughs accidentally shooting his wife in a Mexican bar….
~ Pound dragged through the streets in a cage….
~ Dostoevsky up against the bullet-scarred wall….
The common thread is a vague indefinable something that animates the poet and sends him or her swimming deep and flying high, til the very words ‘exalted’ and ‘degraded’ no longer have any meaning. It is a spark, a charge which drives him in the futile attempt to encompass all depth and height with his own being, to learn the questions, discover the answers, find the connections and essence.
The poet tells truth, using subtle arts: exaggeration, the misnaming of things, smoky oblique reflections, and those illogical but revealing comparisons. And all these acts would be considered unethical and dishonest if used in normal discourse. But for poetry they are the meat and sinew, the crushing muscle, the flashing nerve.
And why does the poet tell that story, use those clever arts? Because he or she is a poet, and that is what poets are driven to do. Because something burns in the most private heart of the poet, something which forces him – often against his will and contradicting all reason – to stretch the skin of his soul… so that tamer creatures might finally know how large they can grow.
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