Identification as a poet

At what point does one feel comfortable with identifying as a poet?

"I didn't consider myself a poet until people started to call me one," suggests Australian poet Emma Lew in an interview published by web journal Thylazine. "It sounds so abject, but I needed to have the title conferred on me; it would have been presumptuous to claim it for myself. I never thought I should try to publish a book of poems until people started to suggest I might. And then I did. The responses I was getting made me dare to become ambitious. It's just gone on from there."

Andy Jackson and William Herbert offer some thoughts....

Andy Jackson
I think it's quite complex. We're talking about self-definition, in its narrowest sense -- what do we 'do' primarily. In the case of a baker or candlestick maker, the definition is easy: it's whatever anyone does on a daily basis in order to pay the bills. More than that, it's also recognised as being 'successful' in its own way -- a loaf is a loaf is a loaf, as long as it's edible.

Definitions also exist which don't depend on money -- 'carer', 'home-maker' etc. In this instance it depends on how you spend the majority of your time in any given day.

Poetry, on the other hand, isn't a regular (or regulated) activity, and it certainly don't pay no bills. It is also a matter of some debate as to what is a fully baked poem and what is half-baked – I mean it's not clear in the eyes of the general public (vague, I know) what the 'real thing' is. It's not even clear among practitioners of the art what the real thing is! Opinion differs, fluctuates over time, follows specific trends. What may look like a loaf on first sight may turn out to be bagel, or worse, a cleverly-moulded piece of foam rubber.

In other words, if the words fail as a poem, the practitioner looks less and less like a 'poet', I think, and more like a baker who's trying to write poetry. The art, like the practitioner, is open to judgement rather than to social definition, which makes it more of a slippery issue. The P-word is liable to appropriation by anyone who puts words to paper. It's like anyone can be a Manchester United fan, as long as you wear the correct shirt. And that kind of fruity, windswept image of being a poet in the public imagination makes it extremely unappealing as far as self-definitions go. There's embarrassing baggage involved, as opposed to being a 'writer', for example.

Ultimately, I would have no problem in using the P-word as long as the practitioner had at least one volume published -- at least we would have some sense, at that point, that the loaf had actually risen, and that the substance had been objectively approved somehow in the taste-test and placed on the shelf for consumption. I mean self-definition must depend on our function within a society, not what we personally choose to believe depending on the contents of our bottom drawers. In that sense, I think the definition of 'poet' can only be given, rather than being self-proclaimed. or, if it is self-proclaimed, it would have to be backed-up by public evidence of some concrete sort.

As you say, books are the thing. For those with books published who still can't bring themselves to appropriate the P-word ... I don't know. Again, it's self-definition. Perhaps they don't want to sit in that particular box? Perhaps for the same reason someone prefers to be a home-maker than a housewife. Perhaps because of how they primarily spend their time and energy ... earning a crust as a librarian 97% of the time and writing poetry 3% would pretty much tip the scales in terms of 'being' a librarian (assuming there has to be only one preferred definition), in the same way that a baker who takes to the hills and paints watercolour landscapes on a Sunday afternoon is a baker rather than an artist. This allocation of time, necessary for financial reasons, makes poetry look like an obsessive hobby (as most hobbies are).

I was struck by this quote from Peter Sansom in the last Poetry Review. "Most [poets], I think, are like me, and not poets at all, but people who sometimes write poems, and whose lives, for good or ill, are given over to making that sometimes possible."

It is that "sometimes possible" which weighs heaviest in this argument, I think. A baker is not a baker when sometimes possible, neither is any high street trade ... or, indeed, almost any other creative activity, again, primarily for financial reasons. Can anyone afford to be a poet?? Or is that a silly question?

William Herbert
I'm (finally) happy enough to call myself a poet, despite having great problems with categories of all sorts, from 'male' to 'Scottish' to 'socialist' to 'tablet' (try defining tablet to a non-Scot, just try). I was actually asked this by two earnest and rather sweet German boys (who wore berets at all times) while I was eating in the Idiot Café in St Petersburg. Yes, I know this sounds unlikely, but there you are. I thought about the situations in which I say I lecture at Lancaster University, and those in which I declare that I'm a writer – which seems little more than a declaration that I am not currently illiterate – and I thought about the publications, the act of public acknowledgement which is being asked to somewhere abroad to read your poetry. i thought about how tired I was pussyfooting around this particular term.

But the reason I said I felt able to call myself a poet was because it's what I do all the time. I wake up trying to remember something I wrote down or read in a dream; I come back from taking my daughter to school and write down th things that occurred to me in the car; I buy one of those pads you can stick to your windscreen so that I can attempt to take notes when I'm driving; I carry a notepad constantly and find that there are very few days in which something is not jotted down; I have pages of scrappy revised or to be-revised material I carry round with me; I have twenty poems in my head at any given time which are waiting for the transition from neat title or potential theme into actual language; I have twenty poems on disk or in draft that are being worked on whenever I have a minute; I prefer to go to the pub by myself on a Saturday afternoon because it ritualises the necessary idleness during which unconscious composition goes on; I very rarely pick up a book or go see a movie that is not (usually extremely obliquely) related to something I'm writing or intending to write or hope one day to be able to write; I am depressed before I write a poem, then elated once I have, then depressed again when I see how far it's still got to go, and I go to sleep wondering if I'll be able to memorise those few lines or whether I should just get up and write them dzzzzzz – and I do this whenever I am not being actively called upon to teach, mark edit, cook, clean, look after the bairn or be with my wife or friends (and they're all writers, mostly poets, anyway).

Sad is not the word. Tablet is definitely not the word.