For Wednesday, March 23, 2016:
“A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.”
W. H. Auden
“There are two men inside the artist, the poet and the craftsman. One is born a poet. One becomes a craftsman.”
Emile Zola, in a letter to Cezanne
Far be it from me to suggest that the venerable Auden is not entirely right. I think Zola is more correct. Of course poets love language with a passion, but I don’t think that comes first and foremost – at least it doesn’t for me. I can’t speak for every poet – nor do I presume to – but I’ve been reading and writing poetry for over 50 years (including Auden, of course), and, from my experience, something else comes before language and is more vital.
I believe poets are born with what I call a poetic sensibility, a way of looking at and experiencing the world. Even before they have words, before they know the magic of language, many poets – most, perhaps – feel and pick up on things a lot of others don’t see. They can pinpoint subtleties of light, movement, smell, touch, color, the general aethos around them that many people miss. They remember them as well, to use later, even from childhood memories.
The discovery of language and words was, for my own budding poet, pure gift. I remember feeling like I was complete when I wrote my first poem at age six. My exhilaration was almost visible as I sat on the sand dune in the late afternoon of a North Carolina summer. The thrill went through my entire body and was so intense I had to hug it to myself. That and my little notebook with those three simple stanzas.
My parents read to me from the time they knew I was in utero, so I had a sense of poetic form and structure from nursery rhymes and the like, which meant my first poem rhymed. Since then I think I’ve written fewer than ten rhyming poems that are halfway decent. I didn’t know free form poetry was a possibility when I was six. If I had, I know I would have written some poems before then. As soon as I learned about it, though, I took off and filled notebook after notebook, stray scraps of paper, and the backs of restaurant paper placemats.
As I progressed in school, I was almost as thrilled to find out there were more ways to write poems as when I wrote my first one. This is when I discovered how passionate I was about language. This is when I discovered I could be a craftsperson, too. I had to, if I was to be true to myself and my poet’s muse. Some poetry was like putting puzzles together, others made me search for just that right word and put it in just that right place in the line so it made more sense.
I don’t write as much poetry nowadays as I would like, but I think I still have some of the sensibilities. The open roots of a particular old tree in the yard keep calling me to craft a poem about them, in fact. If I don’t do so in words, I hope to with a small garden at least. Sometimes a poet doesn’t need words.