Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say 'It is in me, and shall out. 'Stand there, balked and dumb, stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand and strive, until at last rage draw out of thee that dream-power transcending all limit and privacy, and by virtue of which a man is the conductor of a whole river of electricity.
- from 'The Poet' by Ralph Waldo Emerson
When a friend introduces me to someone and says, "John is a poet," I always wonder if I'm worthy of that designation. I wonder if I have the courage. Robert Frost found it sufficient simply to put down "writer" on his passport papers.
To be everything the word "poet" implies is a large order. The term is often bandied about rather promiscuously. Almost everyone who tries to write poetry is a "poet."
But it's not a contradiction to say that everybody is basically and potentially a poet. I like to think everybody has a spark - if not a flame - of poetry, just as I think everybody has a spark of the divine.
So to refer to oneself as a poet is hardly necessary. It's like saying, "I'm a person." Sometimes, of course, you have to say that - or even shout it.
The question is, how do we get out of ourselves the poetry that is so deeply there? By a daily regimen of writing? By a careful study of form and meter - in Thomas Hardy, let's say? By taking courses and attending workshops in writing? By reading literary criticism? By pouring over the little magazines?
I think the answer is no, none of the above. All of them can be helpful, certainly, especially reading and re-reading poems that we love. Marvin Bell has said, "You'll write up to the level of your reading."
A workshop, a teacher, a friend can point us to reading that will enrich our enjoyment and inform our understanding.
Also helpful, if not the only approach, is the willingness to write with a kind of wholehearted audacity (not holding anything back) and to revise mercilessly. Neil Millar, who wrote for these pages, used to say, "Write at white heat. Revise in cold blood."
But I think what we need, more than anything, is an artistic commitment - if not to any group then to ourselves as writers - a determination to renew and deepen ourselves until we find that we're living as artists most of the time.
We can each carry on our own private war with the cliche and with ready-made language that is easier to fall into than we sometimes realize. Stereotypes that standardize our writing in some gray manner and choke off creativity need to be recognized and avoided.
Our commitment is to find and speak our own language, thereby perhaps to influence and enhance the language of the race. Is it too much to expect?
When I say that we become artists most of the time, I don't mean that we relegate societal and domestic responsibilities to some lesser realm of endeavor or abdicate them in order to write poems. There are jobs to be done, people to see, groceries to be bought, children to be nourished and guided. It is not that we surrender or neglect any of these duties. It is rather that we learn to value them in such a way as to transform them into the language of poetry.
There is no such thing as a part-time poet. We're not poets just when we're writing poems or even because we're writing them, but because of how we look at life and how we're thinking and living.
We might accept this as a challenge: to take the ordinary in our life and make it into something extraordinary; take that which is pedestrian and give it wings.
When we plunge into the duties of life, making new connections with poetry, our lives and our poems begin to resonate with a new energy.
It is in us to rescue our writing from self-defeating extremes. Our poems need not become so private as to be isolated, unrelated to the tangible elements of human experience, to humanity and involvement with life. They need not become trivial and narrow.
What does it take to express the majesty, wonder, and wisdom that are hidden so deeply in us? It takes getting rid of whatever stifles the poet in us - a renunciation of all that is small-minded, second-best, soulless, and artificial.
My hope is that we find more poets of courage and commitment who will interpret the world and the universe to all of us with wise and enlightened comprehension and will leave, in the words of Stephen Spender, "The vivid air signed with their honor."