Sunday, January 24, 2010

Poet or Writer of Poetry?

My late friend and mentor, Keith Wilson, taught me that poet is a word best conferred upon one by another, rather than a title claimed for oneself. Ever since, I've answered the question Are you a poet? with I write poetry.

Charles Bukowski, who was neither my friend, nor my mentor (although on occasions I unsuccessfully tried to duplicate his alcoholic visions), said that too many poets spend their time trying to be a poet, rather than writing poetry--which brings us to the question Why do you write poetry anyway? If you've never asked yourself that question, then this discussion will probably not make a lot of sense to you because you are either an enlightened soul without the need for motivation to do what you want to do, or you have not tried to write poetry long enough to hit some kind of a wall that you can't seem to push beyond. Either way, you should stop reading this blog right now, go pick up a good book (preferably of poetry) and never look back.

A fact that I am neither proud nor ashamed of is that I grew up in church. I mean that both metaphorically and quite literally. I was in church every time the doors were open and a lot of times when they were closed. I discovered as a child that many church-goers were more interested in the politics of power in running the church than they were in living out the principles that were behind the reason for the church to exist--they were more interested in playing God than knowing God. This contributed to my developing two minds about religion as a child: 1) a deep faith in something larger than myself and 2) a strong skepticism concerning organized religion being in touch with that something.

I remember one occasion when a prospective preacher was visiting our church "in view of a call" to be our minister. After a trial sermon on Sunday morning, a meeting with the deacon board on Sunday afternoon, and another trial sermon that evening, this preacher had a town-hall type meeting with the congregation to answer any questions we might have. I was around twelve years old at the time and was dealing with what my denomination referred to as "God's call into the ministry" (which is another story for another time). I was searching for objective, observable criteria for knowing whether the Divine was dealing with me on a personal basis regarding the vocation of ministry, and I was quite skeptical of what many ministers (and lay people) put off on God as "his will." This particular minister had shared with us in one of his sermons that he had left the ministry to go back into "secular work" but felt God's calling to him to get back into the ministry. My childhood instincts told me that he was incompetent in his non-ministerial job and, having nothing else to fall back on, had decided that it was God's will to go back into the ministry, so I raised my hand and asked: "How do you know that it's God's will for you to be in the ministry?" Without hesitation, he replied "I don't know. All I know is that I can't do anything else--I have to preach." "Aha," I thought. I've got you. You have to preach because you can't do anything else. And in my mind, not being able to do anything else disqualified him to be our preacher, because I wanted a preacher who was smart, educated, and had all the answers.

Almost fifty years later, I have a different perspective on his answer. I had wanted him to articulate all of the elements that went in to making up my ideal minister, and then to demonstrate how God had developed each of these aspects in his personal and professional life. But this man's goal was not to excel as a minister or even as a preacher of sermons, his goal was not to be anything. It was simply to preach. Why? Because he just knew that after not being in the pulpit for some time, he was unhappy. He just knew he had to preach.

Why do you want to write poetry? To be a poet? Or because of the work, because you can't not write poetry? I think the answer is important. I think the answer determines the quality of work we produce. I think the answer determines whether we continue to write poetry after our formal training is over, after we get that teaching position, or after any number of life's events. I think the answer makes a difference in whether we deserve to be called poets.


  1. Great post (although I'm a tad late reading it). I loved the story about the visiting minister!