Writing

What does it mean to be a poet?

Many people consider poetry to be grandiloquent language oddly scattered across a page. They believe there’s a secret code to the words, lines, rhythms, and images that they are not privy to. Poetry is frustrating, nonsensical, maybe even boring. And poets, well, they wear baggy clothing and weave flowers in their hair. They drink chai and do yoga and can’t speak in straightforward sentences.

I’m here to tell you – those people are right, kind of.

But, I wouldn’t be doing my duty as a poet if I didn’t also say there’s much more to poetry and poets than that. The language of poetry may be, at times, elevated and flowery, but it can also be conversational and accessible. The lines and phrases in a poem are made with the same words you might find in a television commercial or a newspaper article, except that they are concentrated, distilled, made smaller so that the meaning can be made larger, like an elixir, like a telescopic lens. A good poem has good craft – imagery, sound, mood, form, rhythm – and good words. Like grandiloquent. You like that, don’t you? But also, words like brim, and lilt, and ache, and curve, and gasp, and flutter, and scorch, and tremble.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge attempts a definition of poetry: The best words in the best order. It’s not easy to achieve that. It takes work. Poets are always working, always juggling the best words, always shifting the order around. If poets seem distracted or in another world, it might well be that they are.

The poets I know exist perfectly well in our modern world, but part of them belongs to a deeper realm. It’s accurate to say poets see the world differently from others, but then, so do microbiologists, so do nuclear physicists, so do motorcycle mechanics, so do botanists and musicians and preschool teachers. There’s no right way to view life, only differently ways with different lenses. A poet builds a lens with words and the essence behind and within them.

So, what does it mean to be a poet? It’s no different than what it means to be anything else. Poets don’t have a monopoly on emotion or imagery or sensitivity. We just welcome all that stuff a bit more than others might and try to write it down. And that’s ok, because somebody’s got to do it, right?