I’ve always wanted to write something like this, be it an essay or an article. I’ve always had an idea or a vision of writing my own personal view of what poetry is and what it means to be a poet. I’ve had this idea for a couple of years now. When I first thought of it, it struck me as nothing else but my own reasonably oversized ego. Let me explain...
I have been writing poetry, literal poetry, for about three years now; five years if I include the lyrics to my early raps. Three years ago my poems were... bad. I mean really bad. The kind of ‘bad’ you should be put in prison for. These poems were obese with clichés and cheap imagery. They were completely unstructured, except for the clear rhyme schemes. I was a typical beginner poet, thinking that all poems should rhyme, otherwise it just isn’t poetry. Here’s where the ego comes in. I used to think that I am a poet just because I’ve written something that rhymes. Somehow, I felt glorified and relevant to the world of art and to the development of the already complex human mind, just because I could rhyme a ‘cat’ with a ‘mat’. My ego was of course just delusional thinking.
However, I did not know it at the time, perhaps I chose not to know it, that my ego, being the inspiration for this piece, was essentially what kept blocking me from writing my answer, or my personal view of the question in the title. Only with time did my ego give way to the humbling power of poetry. I’ve learned some of the basic rules, the hard way, and I’ve accepted the fact that if I really want to write poetry I would have to become a student of this art for the rest of my life. You can see where the ego scuttled away with its tail tucked between its legs...
I’ve understood that I would have to wait some time until I had a reasonably mature attitude towards poetry. Even now, in many ways, it is still too early for me to write my response to the question in the title. It is too early even for those who had been writing poetry for decades. Knowing this, I realise that my response to this question will never be complete. I believe that there is no single answer to this question. The answer lies in each individual poet and his/her relationship with poetry.
As I said before, I used to think that being a poet is simply being a person with the ability to rhyme. I quickly learned the important lesson that rhyming is a tool, not a necessity in poetry. I guess the easiest way to put it is that it’s ok to rhyme, as long as the rhyme is not the meaning of a particular stanza, phrase or line. It cannot become the pattern for the poem; instead the poem should become the pattern for the rhyme. Ultimately, rhyming is just another decision a poet has to make when composing his/her piece. It may or may not be used, depending on the poem itself.
Usually, however, there is one necessity in poetry. Imagery. Without imagery, a poem does not ‘capture’ a particular thing a poet wants to express, but simply explains it. If I want to ‘explain’ something I tend to use the simplest words I can find to make it understandable. Imagery does not simply explain something to you. Imagery grabs you by the collar and pulls you to the exact spot in space and/or time of which it speaks. You experience that place and it needs no explanation.
Why am I talking about this? Well, on a very fundamental level, I’ve learned that in order to be a poet you have to learn to see. There is a difference between looking at something and seeing something. When you look at something, you simply acknowledge that it is there. You limit your observation to an acceptance of reality, the same way you look at a watch to check the time. A mere glance is enough to tell you the fundamental reality that it is now 5pm and you are allowed to go home from work, but this is just the outer layer of that reality.
To see something, your patterns of observation have to become more directly connected to whatever you’re observing. In other words, you have to become the thing you’re observing. Let me illustrate.
A bowl is a bowl. You pour your soup into a bowl, which makes it easier for you to eat that soup. This fact is probably the immediate observation you make when you see a bowl. However, if you were to take a bowl, put it in front of you, would you be able to see, or to become the bowl? Yes, this sounds quite ridiculous; a bowl is just an object used for eating. However, if a bowl had a mind, what would it say? For example:
‘I live in a box with hinges
that opens only when a stomach growls-
sandwiched between my sisters,
I am just one in a cupboard pile.’
...Or something like that. Now this isn’t top class poetry, but do you see what I mean when I say that imagery is like becoming something? Not only had this bowl been given an identity, but somewhat of an emotional strain is also visible. It’s empty when it’s not being used. It feels worthless when it just sits in a cupboard. You suddenly begin ‘experiencing’ the bowl and you somehow understand it, even though, in reality, it is indeed just a bowl. Where am I going with this?
Well, one way of answering the question, ‘What does it mean to be a poet?’, simply means that you observe something and then use imagery and other language techniques to express it and to make the reader be able to experience whatever your poem is about. However, this view is somewhat limited to the technical aspects of poetry. It speaks of its function and effect, but does it really explain what it means to be a poet?
I’ve learned that being a poet does not simply mean being able to write good poetry, using advanced and sophisticated techniques to express something, nor does it actually mean to pick up a pen and then start working on a poem.
I’ve observed many things since I’ve been writing poetry, including something very important. The things I observe - the objects, people, places, etc – seem to be carefully selected. Interestingly, I often select the ‘objects’ I observe subconsciously. I don’t just observe absolutely everything that is around me. I am an individual, so only specific things will draw my attention and these things may be the complete opposite of what draws the attention of another individual. However, the most important point here is that the things that draw my attention also seem to capture my feelings. The imagery I use in my poems seems to have a direct connection to my deepest thoughts and emotions. Again, this often happens subconsciously, so I can’t say that being a poet is about self-expression, because sometimes I don’t even realise that there is a connection to my personal life, so here’s my response to the primary question, ‘What does it mean to be a poet?’
Being a poet does not mean ‘self-expression’; being a poet means ‘self-discovery’.
I realised that a couple of months ago and I must admit that when I first realised it, I got quite scared. I wasn’t sure whether I actually want to ‘self-discover’. Why? Because self-discovery can be as much fulfilling as it can be destructive.
However, there is a reason to why I first started writing poetry. I did not know who I was.
I’ve always had a problem with analysing myself and coming to certain conclusions, even if they weren't correct. I was unable to learn about myself. There was a black hole inside of me that consumed everything around and within me, and yet it was still just a black hole. It had no sound, no texture, not even a shape. Self-discovery was something I was incapable of doing. Perhaps it was my age. I was very young. Then again, I am still very young.
I now believe that being a poet has nothing to do with writing poems. Being a poet means finding just the right words that tell you exactly who you are.
I can honestly say that now I know who I am, but that I will keep to myself... J