I do not believe in the sanctity of place, nor do I believe in the holiness of nationality. The value of one passport over another is not a value I trust or share. Sure, some geographical regions are more handsome than others, just as some urban environs are more hazardous than others, but that either should amount to superiority is a matter I dispute. I know our times are rife with conflicts which are rooted in these perceived values, but I take no sides nor place any stock in any of them. The movement of peoples is not something I condemn or condone, the baggage of history notwithstanding. I simply see no virtue in nation states and their recorded narratives. I guess in many ways I am a man without a country, which is to say in my case, since I first emigrated in 1983, my native country of Ireland has ceased to be mine, and whatever nostalgic connection I might once have had for the place has now completely vanished. I still root for the green in the various sports wars to which our species is prone, but that is more out of habit than any visceral bond I share with those doing the fighting or the flag under which they fight. At the end of the day, I couldn’t care less and I quickly recover from whatever phantom grief a loss or good thrashing on the fields of play may arouse. But let’s proceed to the matter at hand …
As a man who considers the writing of poems the core duty and work of his life, Ireland holds absolutely no poetic connection or salience for me, which is to say that country, the country of my birth is neither an agency nor a cause in this bizarre and sometimes blind activity, the activity of those who live exclusively in a fog. I suppose this is a unique assertion for our peculiar brand of aphasia, since connecting to the land and history of Ireland is a favoured pastime of poem writers from that island. The adjective ‘Irish’ somehow confers pedigree to writers of poems insofar as it makes one guilty by association with a long line of poets from Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, W. B. Yeats, Patrick Kavanagh, Eavan Boland, to Seamus Heaney, to say nothing of the bawlers in Gaelic, even though when examined more closely most of these just named more properly belong to the neighboring island of Britain, not that such ‘belonging’ has any relevance in my way of thinking.
I do submit that literary traditions can be very attractive and compelling shelters for the homeless or even for those already with a home but seeking to identify and belong anew, to add pedigree to their sense of belonging, or simply to stamp their passport, and a particularly strong tradition can become its own raison d’etre. Many poets from Ireland identify with the Irish canon and make it their subject and inspiration. They find in first class poets like Yeats, say, a mentor worthy of emulation and imitation, and sometimes entire generations labor under the spell of one such giant or master. A poet like Yeats is an unavoidable and immovable object in any tradition and one so-inclined would struggle to pass him by without coming under his corrupting influence. As a model of achievement he has few equals and that he made Ireland his personal poetic crusade only exacerbated the identification for those coming after. The Yeats industry is still alive and well, still as profitable as ever, and still a good career move for an aspiring poet. The Ireland of Yeats’ imagination too still grips and galvanizes, still confers national identity, still shapes literary history, and still refuses to release its hold on the singing schools. Poets of Irish extraction still define their work against the correlative that is Mr. Yeats.
But not I. I have never belonged to any of that. Like Kavanagh, I believe any adjective used to modify the noun ‘poet’ is a lessening and unnecessary diminishing of that word. Either a man or woman is a poet or he or she is not. No other qualification is needed. It isn’t necessary to shade or inflect the assertion any further. I do understand the urge to find and settle on a label, as a way of classifying and distinguishing one reality from another; I get all that, the irresistible taxonomical instinct, and that it might even be very confusing for some not to know upon which patch of earth and between which precise coordinates a certain individual was spawned. Without that knowledge, upon which so many other labels depend, how can one possibly comprehend any person, let alone a poet? Isn’t one’s essence and identity inextricably tied to one’s place of birth? And what of all those writers of poems who take as their exclusive subjects only those that pertain to their nation of origin and connect them back to that origin? What happens to their work when all that label-laden content is elided?
Let’s phrase the question differently: how important was it that Paul Antschel, now known as Paul Celan, was born in Cernăuți, Bukovina, a region once located in the kingdom of Romania, now called Chernivtsy because it is in the Ukraine, grew up speaking Hebrew, Romanian, and German, went to Tours, France to study medicine, returned to Cernăuți to study literature and romance languages, translated Shakespeare’s sonnets into Romanian, was sent to a labor camp during the war, then went to Bucharest where he translated Russian Literature into Romanian, after which he fled the Russians to Austria, where he wrote poetry in German, and finally settled in Paris, became a French citizen, but continued to write and publish poetry in German? Did Romania, Russia, Austria, Israel, France or Germany create and define this poet? His native languages were Hebrew and Romanian, but he wrote in German, and by the time he died his daily tongue was French even though he still wrote in German. Putting aside the question of his nationality, or birthplace, and the numerous geographical locales he knew and made his home, which literary tradition made him into a poet? To which did he owe his greatest debt? Was he a German poet because he wrote in German? A French poet because he held a French passport? A Romanian one because he was born in Romania? Ukrainian because that region of Romania eventually became part of the Ukraine? An Austrian poet because he lived for a while in Austria? A Jewish one because the Holocaust shaped his Weltanschauung? Or an Israeli poet because his first language was Hebrew and perhaps his only political affiliations lay there?
I do not believe in the vatic image or definition of the poet either, and nor indeed do I believe in the dictum Poeta Nascitur, Non Fit? The German Idealists and the Romantics especially [from France, England, and Germany], many of whom were trained theologians, carried their religious instincts over into aesthetics and recast the poet as priest, or as one who communes directly with the godhead. Wordsworth had the god-poet as passive pantheist awaiting inspiration from nature’s muses. Goethe, Schiller, Holderlin, and Novalis all saw the poet as the privileged mouthpiece of God. Even Patrick Kavanagh delivered himself of a lot of nonsense about the divine nature of the poetic utterance, believing in the blinding flash of inspiration that could come only from God. Because of this view, he also saw himself as God’s chosen emissary, as the most reliable moral authority, and as the one to deliver absolute pronouncements on the nature and shape of human intentions and interactions. Kavanagh wasn’t simply the parish priest as poet, he was also the bishop and pope as poet, and God help anyone who was misfortunate enough to meet with his divine opprobrium. Unlike Kavanagh and his ilk (I’m thinking of Octavio Paz’s declarations in The Bow and the Lyre), I do not believe poets are divinely inspired at all or charged with any kind of godly mandate. I do not believe poets are any more special or entitled than the next man or woman, even the greatest ones, and I do not believe their mastery comes from any other source than themselves.
Poetry is a craft, first and foremost, and like every craft the performance gets better with regular practice. Also, like every craft, some practitioners are simply better than others, not because they’re born that way but because they made themselves thus, just as some people are more intelligent, or more evil, or more athletic than others. Most poets start out by enduring the usual growing pains of pastiche, parody, and imitation. They find models they like and that speak to them and they grow from there. Some poets however never grow from there, and remain stuck as poor imitators of their masters. Others are originals who develop their powers in isolation. Most good poets are also good readers of poetry and most have sampled many poems in order to hoist their own petard. There is no one path to being a poet, but one thing is certain poets don’t just sprout out of the earth fully formed; they must undergo a long apprenticeship to reach that level of fluency we call ‘finding a voice’. Nor is there any one or typical trajectory, for being a poet requires self-discipline, intrinsic motivation, dedication, vision, intelligence, imagination, versatility, but above all tenacity, and above all that again the belief that this useless, impractical, impecunious trade has some aesthetic value beyond what can be tallied, measured, or put into a bank.
Poetry is a craft poets need to practice to get better, and any greatness that may reside in poets’ words is not prompted by fairies, muses, forces of nature, places of birth, passports, reading, education, or God, it comes directly from the choices poets make in building their poems, and then in the level of artisanship they bring to the craft. It comes from the work ethic of the poet, his or her instinct for setting and meeting standards, the amount and quality of their self-reflection, their perviousness to scrutiny, feedback, intolerance, unacceptance, or whatever challenges they face and overcome. They become by overcoming … themselves first … and after that any obstacle that might hem them in, circumscribe their prospects, or retard them in the process of making them better crafters of poems. Talent, innate capacity, intuition, maturity, and simply ‘knowing how’ are all parts of the process too, but these are discovered and expressed through trial and error, sheer slog, and the single-minded process of acquiring proficiency. Poets to be poets must be focused, realistic, truthful about themselves, honest about their capacity, and willing to experiment, learn, grow, and mature. The worst affliction for any poet is to believe his or her own publicity and then to become a parody of his or herself.
Poets should only strive within their powers to become better and when the game is up should be forthright enough to pack it in. Too many elderly poets go through too many motions simply to uphold appearances and simply because production is expected of them. Self-knowledge is the key poets should use both to open & close their careers. Too many mediocre poets do not own their mediocrity and continue scribbling to their death, but more power to them so long as their insistence is a victimless endeavor. Too many poets [like others in other walks of life] are delusional, feckless, clueless, and ultimately self-destructive, but these are all qualities not peculiar to poets alone. No one craftsman holds any monopoly on human inanity. There’s enough of that to go around. Some poets are fortunate enough to have mentors, who midwife and guide them through their birth pangs. Some poets learn all by themselves and never see the light of publication, others are feted from the moment of birth. In short, the lives and experiences of poets are as varied and multifarious as the human condition itself and there is no one formula or script … and just as well because poets are made in the act of writing poetry. Poets are poets only through that defining action and that is exclusively a human power.
It is conscious, sober, and deliberate effort, with sometimes moments of reverie or transcendence, sometimes a drunken or drugged abandon, sometimes self-induced semi-consciousness, or dreaminess that makes a poem, but none of this is divine intervention and none of it exists except through the poet as he or she wills it, meaning, the poet chooses what comes and goes and passes as the instruments, the means and ends of poetry. Especially the results … ‘A line might take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.’ … they must be subjected to the conscious rational faculties if they are to assume a desired and hoped-for shape. If the poet chooses a difficult prosodic form, which may entail complicated metrical and rhythmical structures, a deep knowledge of words and their many nuances and possibilities, as well as an understanding of what constitutes an acceptable, contemporary, and original use of the form, then no matter the cognitive conditions of the poem’s provenance, even if the poet believes it was divine intervention that directed the whole process, it is the poet’s own raw, rational faculties and conscious labors that finally get the job done.
There is no escaping that arduous, time-consuming drudgery which requires the poet to sit at his or her desk for hours on end, toying and tinkering with words, with sounds and possibilities in order to render inspiration and imagination into the exquisite poetic vessel of his and her choosing. No other agency but the poet’s completes this work … and it matters little whether the poet was born in Jakarta, Dhaka, Dublin, Boston, or Glasgow, whether he or she holds a Pakistani, Australian, or French passport, or believes in God, Dianetics, or Buddha, the fact is nothing but their own private, individual mental efforts and mental wherewithal can finish and perfect a poem, and it is this hard slog over a lifetime that may or may not pay dividends and earn a poet a place in the pantheon. After inspiration comes the hard labor of crafting poems into presentable, beautiful, even sublime objects, and this hard labor cannot be avoided or secreted into mysteries if the craft of making poems is to endure and succeed.