A Saturday Afternoon Rant on the ‘Madness’ of Poets

There’s an idea about poetry and poets that’s a little cute, naive even, and one which often comes from people who either don’t write, people who don’t write poetry or sometimes from myth-making poets themselves.

It’s also a bit of a throwback to the Romantic poetic tradition whereby poems ‘spring forth fully formed ’ and are linked endlessly to the ‘divine.’ But it’s also an idea which is uncharitable to the poet, a reductionist idea, one which sometimes removes agency from the writer.

And so in that respect, it’s not cute. It’s insulting.

I’m talking about when poets are described as ‘mad’, ‘fragile’, ‘delicate geniuses’ who are unable to understand or even approach understanding of ‘where the words come from.’ Doing so actually risks de-humanising poets.

Contrary to the above, I believe poets are quite self-aware.

Over the last ten years I’ve been lucky enough to work with dozens and dozens of brilliant poets who know exactly what their obsessions are, their passions and the themes that haunt them. These poets know that they’re the sum of their experience and education, they know where the words come from.

We poets also know that we’re professional, that we care about our readers. We’re hard working. Not fragile. We know that we’re rational. Not mad. We know that we hold down one or two or three jobs, that we care for our families, help our communities, we know that we fight every day to have time and freedom to pursue our art, we know that we want to talk (sometimes too much!) about what we write, and where it comes from.

We know from where because we seek the answer, because we’re trying to grow as artists. We despise our ignorance because it holds us back.

Poets are not infantile mouthpieces for a cosmic force, at its mercy, waiting, hoping that it might bestow upon us some words. We’re not literary savants.

We’re on the ground, observing, living, interacting with each other and the world.

And that’s where our words come from.

Italy, one of the literal places my words come from

Italy, one of the literal places my words come from

37 thoughts on “A Saturday Afternoon Rant on the ‘Madness’ of Poets

  1. I should probably add, that in regards to this statement:

    “We know from where because we seek the answer, because we’re trying to grow as artists. We despise our ignorance because it holds us back.”

    It’s probably true of all art forms, of all professionals in any field – the ones that care anyway 🙂

    • Thanks, Brad! Wow, I feel like it was a rant, yeah – but perhaps I was less over the top than I thought? 🙂 I will add the talk to my list, looking forward to it – love discussions of creativity.

  2. “We’re on the ground, observing, living, interacting with each other and the world.
    And that’s where our words come from.”

    Love this post. I remember struggling so much in my decision to switch from creative nonfiction to poetry in my MFA program, and a lot of the struggle (sadly) was connected to the misconceptions about poets/poetry as fragile, navel-gazing misfits who exist at the margins of society. I am so glad with my decision and the deeper I journey into my education/work, the more I see how outdated and almost humorous popular belief is.

    Also, Italy is also one of the literal places my words/art come from. Thanks for sharing these thoughts! Much appreciated.

    • Hi Libby, thank you! Really glad you liked it – and I agree, that misconception kinda drags the whole art form down, huh? And ‘navel-gazing’

      I should have used that too! 🙂 Have you been to Italy many times?

  3. wonderful statement Ash,

    personally I know what I am writing but during the time of writing I (almost always) have to be somewhat unaware to the process and just let the words spring. Perhaps that is why I am not a poet.
    Perhaps the work is being done before and after the actual writing; in learning, in observing and self developing so observation become stronger and more delicate and after, in reworking parts of it (job that I hate and sadly rarely do)

    • Dhyan, thank you too – but I am firmly convinced that you’re a poet!
      I think you’re right there, the work is definitely being done before the writing, I feel. It’s a process of assembly, and we rework so much, I like that

      (thanks for the reblog too)

      • Before anyone come to the (right) conclusion I am searching for assurance out there I’ll say say that I don’t see or consider myself as a poet because I lack what dedication to poetry I feel should be. I am writing.
        I am glad we think the same line on the process. I wish I could rework. I hate it and am not good at it.
        (My great pleasure, there are not enough blog spots about writing which are both deep and accessible to someone who don’t have the time or mind capacity to philosophy it all too much (which I enjoy). But you usually are making the right balance very well)

          • (yes, balance is everything, and as I am studying TCM these days I will echo this twice more)

            To some extent yes, writing in itself, so I think, is dedication, but it can;t be enough. at least it isn’t, not in my book. There must be the work before and probably also after, there must be strong inner gaze, a search and a wish to do better.
            If I just stop to write whenever words hit my path then I cannot say I am dedicated.
            But this is me.

  4. “And so in that respect, it’s not cute. It’s insulting.”

    Exactly. It’s not only insulting to the poet or other artist who has to hear this, it belittles the very real horror of mental illness. Often it’s the artistic community that is most guilty in perpetuating this myth.

    • EXACTLY! Perfect, George – I should have included this point too, well-said. The true horror of mental illness is not art. And I agree, the artistic community has a big hand in it, huh?

    • Thanks, Robbie! 🙂
      I think about it often, and wonder if the myth-making is used as one small part of a general ‘genius of the individual’ idea about artists that I don’t fully buy into. So much art is collaboration.

  5. Brilliant post Ashley and a topic which I have been thinking about forever – was going to do a blog post about it but wasn’t brave enough – hahaha – I am only too aware of the people who muse about their muse 😉 It’s interesting that Bob Dylan in his earlier career talked about his lyrics materialising from the ether, type thing, but later as he matured he just laughed if off and said that obviously the words just come from him (like, where else would they be coming from). We have a brain, it produces stuff! The issue of being mad is a separate issue and there might be a greater incidence of disorders among creative types, but it certainly isn’t a defining feature.

    • I agree, and the Bob example is a perfect one. Is it sometimes conceit or sometimes shyness that makes an artists defer attribution of their art?

      You should do a post about it, I’d love to read it! I think the possibility of a greater incidence among creative people would be interesting to explore, absolutely 🙂

      • I think in the early years Bob really did believe he was channelling some sort of messages from above 😉 – that is a form of conceit I believe – a form of magical thinking where you believe you are somehow special and that the laws of the universe do not apply to you (interesting that magical thinking is common in people with some types of mental illness). I must have read it somewhere about the prevalence of mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression (not the psychoses so much) and creative types – I will do some research – I think it is entirely possible given that creative people are often intensely sensitive (a trait which assists in the writing process but which can play havoc with ones emotions).

  6. here is another example to what I mean, here it is from L. Cohen

    [Leonard Cohen] showed me the bookshelves crammed with volumes of notebooks, each packed not only with the famous finished versions of his songs, but also with the countless revisions of these songs, and all the discarded verses he labored over and ultimately excised from his songs. “The thing is,” he explained, “before I can discard the verse, I have to write it. The bad verses take as long as the good verses to write. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines. You can’t see that in the raw.” He writes and rewrites his songs for as long as it takes

    the full text can be found here – http://1heckofaguy.com/2014/02/05/expanding-scope-by-eliminating-content-leonard-cohens-disciplined-revision-of-a-singer-must-die/

    • This is an excellent point – “He writes and rewrites his songs for as long as it takes” I find the same. Some drafts take hours and I come back days later, some drafts take days and I come back months later 🙂

  7. I agree with all you’ve said here Ashley. I would like to add though that being a poet is not a vocation the poet chooses, otherwise everyone would be a poet. Just as some come into this reality with a gift or music, dance, athletics etc, some born with the innate desire and ability to filter the emotional and psychological life experience for all others until it is a living and breathing artistic testament to humanity. Shelley was right, we are the legislators of this world whether we are sane, mad or the usual combination of the two. May I link to this on my facebook page for Tuck and for my personal facebook page?

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