What to call these 'makers of poetry'?
Off the back of the 'Letters to a Young Poet' essays on Radio 3 (particular Micheal Longley’s letter), broadcast originally in January, there's been a bit of talk about what is a poet, should you call yourself one, and if it is pretentious to do so.
Longley prefers the Scotts word, makar, and Horace’s phrase ‘Musarum sacerdos’ a priest of the muses. Horace’s term relates to the Latin word for poet, vates, meaning one that draws from divine inspiration specifically. Makar derives from the Greek word poiein, meaning maker. Of course, the same word begat ‘poet’.
George Puttenham, in ‘The Arte of English Poesie’, opens the first chapter on a similar vein: “A Poet is as much to say as a maker. And our English name well conforms with the Greek word: for of [Greek: poiein] to make, they call a maker Poeta. Such as (by way of resemblance and reverently) we may say of God: who without any travail to his divine imagination, made all the world of nought…”
Longley goes on to warn of self-importance, and tells the young poet that we must avoid calling ourselves poets, akin to calling oneself a saint. Spiritual connotations aside, it should not matter, and we should not care, what a creator of poetry calls themselves: poet, makar, scribe, writer, etc. Whatever title you choose isn't going to make the slightest bit of difference to the writing. Show me the output, rather than the label.
Writer Patrick Neate on the label: “Tell someone you're a poet and their reaction will rarely be a brisk nod and an even 'right you are then'. More likely they will suddenly regard you in one of two ways - either with undeserved and inappropriate wonder or, more often, with equivalent and barely-concealed contempt.”
I've called myself a poet over the years, and still do. As Longley states, a poet is want we most long to be, and we live in hope that others will call us the same. My own use isn't born out of want for acclaim or recognition; poetry has been with me for twenty years now, a lot of my friends are poets, my social life largely revolves around poetry happenings, and writing poetry is the longest and most rewarding vocation I’ve ever had. It makes sense to me personally to use the term since my life so closely identifies with the act. I've been introduced to strangers as such, and in the years of being involved in poetry, I've never been challenged over it. I don't know any poet that really has. The idea of people thinking the term too grandiose or egotistical seems a false one. Perhaps the only people being precious and particular about the term are other poets.
Naturally, I’ve discussed the matter with other ‘makers of poetry’, who have voiced parallel concerns. Chris McLaughlin: “I have been introduced as a poet by some friends who, being unfamiliar with the art, felt they were doing me a good turn. Instead I find the whole thing embarrassing. They may as well have introduced me as a footballer, because I play for a local Sunday league team. After you've written your first poem you are open to the idea of writing another one, but the title of poet is for others to confer, and honestly, I'm not that concerned if they bestow it upon me.”
As Chris hints as, a lot depends of whether you believe yourself worthy of the title, which is in turn dependant on how high a regard you hold the term. Gerry McCullough: “When I was at grammar school, my teacher (a very clever woman) said, 'Poets are born, not made.' This stopped me from trying to write poetry for years. It also made me reluctant to show anyone what I'd written. Over the years, I've realised this isn't actually true. Poets work out their skills. If you want to write poetry, go ahead and do it. If you don't do too well, learn a bit more about it – ok?”
People seem to forget that poetry is subjective. The person praised in one circle is dismissed in another. That doesn't mean one is a poet and the other isn't. Whether you choose to adopt the title yourself, have it thrust upon you, or avoid the issue altogether, it doesn't matter. Forget about being some perceived notion of a poet, or even being seen as one; just keep writing the damn poems instead.
You can listen to Longley’s Letter to a Young Poet here
The Patrick Neate quote is taken from this article
Visit Gerry McCullough's facebook page
View Chris McLaughlin's website