It's no secret, I think, that more and more people are writing poetry these days than might have been the case 50 or 100 years ago. At least, the internet has allowed us to gather that impression. But like other human endeavors, there is always this slightly irking stratification that enters into the overall community.
There are, of course, schools and cliques and groups like our own that come into existence and wave the banner of poetry in their respective corners, and perhaps the largest of such subsets is the motley tribe of "academic" poets, which some of us have inveighed against on a couple of occasions. As an academic (historian, thank you very much), I certainly don't want to incite a pogrom against such poets, but I do wish to quash an idea I gained from listening to Billy Collins.
Billy Collins is perhaps today's Carl Sandburg. He is the popular "face of poetry" for many who don't write poetry but who do watch the Colbert Report and other TV programs where he has appeared--or who have run across his facebook presence. His poetic persona, as he himself has claimed, is the voice of the everyman, the common observer of life. A poet of the people. And I won't deny him his humility, because I know he has paid his dues and he understands, I think, that his popularity is due to powers beyond his own control, but as a poet he seems to want to draw a line in the sand, dividing poets from others and poets from other poets.
In the video I posted in my earlier post Collins commented first that to be a poet, "people have to recognize you as a poet heavily before you can claim yourself as a poet." And then also, he said, "to say I'm a poet is sort of a self-investiture of some kind. It's like claiming some kind of spiritual high ground." In these (probably off-the-cuff) comments, Collins has set out the strata along which poets are arranged.
A poet is not a poet unless he is recognized as a poet heavily. That adverb troubles me. I take it to mean either that this recognition must be frequently given through many, many publications, or that there is an overarching community that bestows that recognition. I might be wrong, but this smells of the academic poetry community. One is not a poet unless recognized by one's institutional peers, in other words. With institutional or heavy recognition from the publication markets, you cannot claim to be a poet.
Further, to claim to be a poet is to claim a spiritual high ground, a self-investiture, a self-induction into a sort of priesthood. This thought came to Collins when discussing how, after being made poet laureate, he thought to himself that now, finally, he could call himself a poet. Where does that leave the rest of us benighted scribblers who have never, will never become laureates?
The more I consider these thoughts, the more I have to reject them. I much prefer the notion that Natalie Goldberg teaches in her book, Writing Down the Bones, which is that we are poets (or writers of any sort) "because we love the world." So "why not finally carry that secret out with our bodies into the living rooms and porches, backyards and grocery stores? Let the whole thing flower: the poem and the person writing the poem. And let us always be kind in this world."
Goldberg also poses the idea of becoming a "tribal" writer, by which she means that a poet writes "for all people...reflecting many voices through us," rather "than to be a cloistered being trying to find one peanut of truth in our own mind. Become big and write with the whole world in your arms." I'm sure that Collins applies this principle in his writing process, of course--I'm applying it now to his self-orientation within the community of poets, a large and tribal community.
Being a tribal writer has interesting implications. The idea of "tribe" suggests primitive community in the popular conception, but historically a tribe was potentially very complex. In history and reality--not to equate the two--the tribe was a very open organization, consisting of bands, clans, villages, and towns, scattered across a broad territory, often only bound by linguistic and cultural ties, and often very cosmopolitan in composition, containing a variety of traveling strangers, traders, captives, refugees, adoptees, and immigrants. Goldberg's reference to tribe as a trope for writers illustrates the nurturing quality of a diverse community--and the hierarchies within it.
Is Collins merely trying to suggest that within the tribe of poets there is this broad diversity among all the poets, with some being more special than others? No, I sense there is an elitism in his comments that seeks to shut a majority of participants in this tribe from the right to claim to be poets. I don't want to overstate or misinterpret his meaning--or at least I should allow that I might have misunderstood his meaning, so let me conclude by insisting that to be a poet is simply to be a writer of poetry, no more, no less--no investiture, no approval necessary, no claims to anything special. Whether one is sick with love for another, or one loves to play with words, or one has imagined something profound to offer the world, what makes that person a poet is not the approval of others and not an empty claim of spiritual enlightenment, but the simple fact that one writes poetry.