By Lucas Tromblee
How many shots at writing a poem does it take be a poet? A long answer short: more than a couple. To go out in the woods with a gun doesn’t make you a hunter. Neither do deer head mounts on your wall. A hunter is what he claims to be in a few short, definitive moments. Those are the analogous moments when the poet is writing a poem. So much discussion around poetry has so little to do with writing it. Writing it is what matters. Whether you’re a poet before or after is just semantics.
To romanticize yourself as a poet can have devastating effects on your writing. No-one romanticizes the work they actually do. Yet, how can we envision being a poet without a little romanticism? I try to stay in the middle of the seesaw on this, between being so lost in the clouds I forget to write, and driving myself so hard to write I forget why I do it. Still, I often feel far from the romantic vision of the poet I wish I were. The vision is blurry, as all far-off, romantic things are:
Waking up early with a line in mind, he gets out of bed and jots it down. Maybe while making coffee, reading something, weeding the garden, he writes another. Line by line, he writes until he writes something he always knew, yet never said, then writes another. The lines reflect the mood of the sky. They reflect the mullein and chicory he walks through. Later, at his desk, his meter scans like rain taps his roof. He sees a bird out the window and mouths the species name. He thinks about growing older and sees another bird he doesn’t recognize. He takes his field guide off his shelf and skims through for a match. Maybe a skua caught in the Ferrel cell. Unsure, he recites a few lines of Milton:
And may at least my weary age
Find out the peaceful hermitage
The hairy gown and mossy cell
Where I may sit and rightly spell
Of every star that heaven doth show,
And every herb that sips the dew:
Till old experience do attain
To something like prophetic strain.
Even Milton envisioned a more disciplined, studious version of himself. To romanticize oneself is a poetic tradition as much as it is a habit. Charles Wright, a contemporary American poet, follows in this tradition. In his poem “Him,” he offers a version of the previous first-person speaker of his poems. “He” is unencumbered by the earthly and bodily turmoil the first-person speaker lets consume him in other poems. But “He,” unlike “me,” is able to transcend what every other poem in the collection wrestles with: namely, death.
When he lies down, the waters will lie down with him,
And all that walks and all that stands still, and sleep through the /
“He” is able to transcend death in transcending his body, in loosing distinction from it and the world. “The waters” and “all that walks and all that stands still.” “He” does this (and this is when the distinction between “he”, the speaker of the poem, and Charles Wright starts to blur) through language. In the second line, the verb “sleep” connotes a plural subject. By the second line, “he,” (the original subject of the poem), has accumulated with “the waters” and “all that walks and all that stands still” into a plural subject. All of them, inseparably, “sleep through the thunder.” Using language in such a subtle way is what Wright calls in a later poem: “doing your job.”
Wright and Milton romanticize themselves in their poems, but the point is they both got a poem out of it. Their poems suggest there is some necessity in poetry, even today, to romanticize ourselves as poets and sustain a sense of wonder in what we do.