A Poet Is Made, Not Born

by Tina Blue
February 15, 2001

          Some poets carve, chisel, and polish their poems over long periods of time, whereas others produce their poems in an intense, fevered moment of inspiration.  In fact, sometimes the same poet will use both methods.

          The poem produced in such an intense flurry of composition is not necessarily less well put together or polished than the one carefully constructed and revised over time.  It all depends on the poet and the poem.

          A poet's mind, including his subconscious--nay, especially his subconscious--is prepared ground.  If the poet has done his homework, which is to say, if he has trained his poetic sensibilities and skills by meticulous observation, study, and practice, then he can often turn the creative process entirely over to his subconscious, or nearly so.

          The more excellent poetry you read, then the more your mind's operations will be shaped by poetic structures.  The more carefully you attend to observation, to really experiencing the complexity and intensity of the world's details, the less likely you are to view your experience of life through the lens of cliche. 

          In An Essay on Criticism (which is actually a long poem written in heroic couplets), eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope says, "True wit is Nature to advantage dressed, / What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed" (297-298*). 

          The poet need not seek out the extreme or the exotic.  We encounter innumerable prizes, surprises, and miracles every day--we're usually just too preoccupied to notice, though from time to time some part of our inner being (the soul of the child who forgot down as he grew up in e. e. cummings' "anyone lived in a pretty how town") vaguely, imprecisely yearns in the direction of the moment by moment astonishment we experienced when we were not jaded but brand-new in the world. 

          When we come across a poem that renews in us that sense of experiencing some small aspect of existence as if for the first time, the veil drops from our eyes and suddenly all is, as Elizabeth Bishop says in "The Fish," "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!" (75).

          But even the most attentive observer is not going to produce powerful poetry unless he masters his medium, no more than a painter who did not understand the properties of paint would be able to convey his exquisite visions on the canvas. 

          That means not only that the poet must be able to put his hands on the word or phrase that precisely captures the meaning or experience he wishes to express, but also that he must not handle grammar in a way that will strike the serious reader as something akin to fingernails screeching on a blackboard.

          Poetic forms also belong in his toolbox.  Even if he writes in free verse, he must be alert to the sounds and rhythms of language.  Obviously, if he writes formal verse, he should master rhyme and meter.  Actually, training himself to write in rhyme and meter will subtly inform his work even when he writes in free verse, because his ear will be attuned to the possibilities of sound effects in language.

          A poet, like any other artist, is made, not born.  Most people come into the world with the potential of seeing with a poet's eyes, of responding with a poet's heart.  But life and training take their toll, and before children have been among us for very long, they have been packed into more prosaic molds.

          But for some few, the light does not dim, the colors never dull, and they retain the capacity to celebrate the moments of their lives even  without the aid of General Foods International Coffees.  When such people find their medium--music, painting, poetry, dance, or whatever--they have found a way of expressing that intensity of experience.

          If they are serious about their art, they go to school to their predecessors, learning at least part of what can be done in their medium by contemplating the best of what already has been done. 

          All the while, they will be diligently practicing their craft, mastering its basics, just as a superb athlete will build his body's strength and stamina, as well as its mastery of the basic skills of his sport, by constant practice.  When the time comes for the athlete to call on his body to accomplish some astonishing physical feat, it responds like a perfect machine, and he has no need to think about how to perform the essential movements of his sport.

          And the serious poet will practice.  He will write poems.  It is not enough to master your tools--you must also employ them.  A "poet" who only  thinks about  the poems he will eventually write is no poet at all, no matter how subtle his sensibility, no matter how expansive his vocabulary, no matter how perfect his understanding of the structures of language and the elements of poetic form.  You cannot be a poet in theory.

          I read somewhere that a poet sees a poem everywhere he looks, and a novelist sees novels everywhere.  As an essayist, I can certainly vouch for the fact that my own genre has that sort of impact.  I see essays everywhere.  It isn't hard to come up with ideas for essays, and a poet who actually writes poems will usually have more ideas than he has time to write poems about.

          Poet Jae Malone tries to write at least a poem a day.  Modern life is complicated, and sometimes it is hard for a poet to get to the mental place where his unborn poems can be found, so even Jae can't always manage to fulfill her poem a day commitment.  But she treats it as a debt she owes that part of herself that is a poet, and just as you would not stiff a good friend, Jae takes very seriously that debt to her poetic self.  (In  "Patience Courts a Poem," which can be found on her website, she writes about how hard it can be to find inspiration amidst the constant noise and scramble of mundane existence.)

          One of the interesting things about artists of all types is their fecundity.  They are full of poems, novels, paintings, and songs jostling to get out into the open--or, if you prefer another metaphor, their work is like steam rising endlessly from the boiling water of their artistic souls.

          Yes, I know artists are sometimes blocked.  I also know that some artists produce just one extraordinary work, or perhaps only a small handful of works, over the course of an entire lifetime.  But such cases are notable because they are actually rather unusual.  A "prepared" artist can scarcely abstain from creating, unless overwhelming emotional disturbance or impossible life circumstances make it impossible to practice his art.  In fact, many artists continue to create even under such circumstances.

          I am not an artist, not a poet.  I am just an essayist of the most ordinary sort.  But even from my own less lofty perch, I can see how the eagle soars.  I have prepared my essayist's mind, and I have mastered my essayist's skills.  Now all I have to do is stand aside and let the essays deliver themselves--at a pace that my poor typing and computer skills cannot pretend to keep up with!

          If you want to be a poet, you must do as a poet does. 

          (1)  Go to school to your masters. Just as young art students study and even copy the works of the Masters in order to learn their techniques (as well as to familiarize themselves with the tradition and the conventions of their art), so too should you study great poets, and even try to imitate their styles, themes,  and structures--not so that you can become a cheap imitation of a great poet, but so you can subconsciously absorb their craft into yours.

When you eat a steak, you do not become a steer.  When you imitate the masters in your art, you will not become them, or even like them.  The body transforms what we eat into what we are.  The steak becomes part of the totality of you.  Similarly, your subconscious will absorb and transform what you learn by studying and imitating great poets.

          (2)  Master the basic tools of your art. As a poet, your medium is language.  The rich, unmatched vocabulary of our language, the rules of grammar and usage, and the elements of poetic form are essential aspects of your medium.  Your goal should be to become so much their master that you are not even consciously aware of them as you write. 

Again, the path to this goal lies through endless hours of study and practice. 

An athlete would not expect to reach mastery in his sport without spending hours practicing and preparing each day.  Professional dancers, even at the pinnacle of their art, still attend dance class for hours each day.  Professional musicians, even the most acclaimed,  practice all the time. 

Why is it that people who want to be writers don't expect to have to study and practice their craft?  They seem to expect brilliant words to pour forth from their pens without any real effort (or involvement in drudgery). 

Sorry. There are no shortcuts.

          (3)  Cultivate your awareness of the moment.  Remove the veil from your eyes.  Throw away the lens of cliche that makes you see the same way everyone else sees, which is hardly at all.  The truth is that there is nothing new to see or say--only unique, you-specific ways of seeing and saying.  But you won't be able to, as Ezra Pound says, "make it new," if all you can see is what the television or a Hallmark card has told you is there.

       What most people call poetry is really just versifying.  There is nothing wrong with merely versifying, especially if it is skillfully done.  Most people find it enjoyable to read and to write  mere verse. 

       Nevertheless, poetry is not really the same thing as versifying, anymore than a painting by Michelangelo is the same as a skillful portrait rendered in five or ten minutes by a sidewalk  artist.

           With enough practice, anyone can learn to render--i.e., to draw well enough so that what you draw looks like what you meant to draw.  But even precise, skillful rendering is less than real art. 

            And anyone can learn to versify, which is not really quite the same thing as writing poetry, though we do tend to use the word "poetry" to refer to both practices. 

            Most of my own "poetry" is really just versification.  I can write a "poem" that rhymes and scans and makes good sense, and I guarantee the grammar will be right.  But it's still not going to be "poetry," not really.  I can, when I care to take the time, produce a flawless verse, but when stacked up against even a flawed poem of the real sort, my verse looks like the trivial pursuit it actually is. 

           No, it's not poetry.  It's more like a clever parlor trick. 

           If all you want to do is versify, then get as good at it as you can, and you and your readers will enjoy it immensely.  I enjoy good verse myself.

          But when practiced as serious art, poetry is more than merely enjoyable.  It is eerily transformative.  We get goosebumps, and the hair stands up on our necks.  Or all suddenly turns quiet, as if we have been so far transported (literally, carried away) that the noise of mere reality can no longer reach us.

          For one moment, what William Butler Yeats calls the "Moment of Moments," we seem to transcend the limits of mortality and to stand in the presence of the god.

          As Emily Dickinson once wrote, "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that it is poetry."