This discussion began in response to a cartoon posted on facebook, with poets silently pondering what to tell people when they ask what they do–on a plane, at a party, meeting your partner’s family. My experiences parallel everyone else’s: if I don’t want to talk I say right off I’m a poet, and that’s the end of the conversation. If I might want to talk I say “teacher,” ease into “literature,” “poetry,” and finally, “Yes, I write poetry myself.” I know dozens of poems that convey this sense of embarrassment and apology, from Mona Van Duyn’s “A Vision Test” to Donald Hall’s “To a Waterfowl,” and I’m sure you can all add your own favorites. I never questioned this posture until I read an interview with the wonderful Russian poet Joseph Brodsky after he had come to America. He said something like, “Why do all you American poets apologize for what you do? You should shout it out loud and proud.” Wow. What a concept. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how right he was. We American poets live in a country where poetry is marginalized even among the arts–and that’s not our fault. Maybe it’s no one’s fault, just a fact of our lives. I joke that I want to come back as a Polish poet, because poetry is a valued and lively part of the general conversation there, and because when the poet Wislawa Szymborska died there the flags flew at half-mast. I’m not necessarily arguing here that we poets should do something to make poetry more visible. Right now I’m not pondering ways to make it more so. Those are interesting questions, but I’m thinking instead about how we carry ourselves here as poets, how we live our lives as poets in America, and about how that affects our own and others’ perceptions of what poetry is. I don’t think for a second there’s a right answer, but I like Brodsky’s advice to shout it out. I don’t hesitate or apologize anymore, I just say it straight out. I have a little button I got years ago at AWP that says POET, and I like to wear it sometimes on the subway or walking down the street and let people see it. Sometimes people look at it and look away. Sometimes someone asks a question or two. Maybe if we aren’t embarrassed to say what we do, others won’t be embarrassed to ask us more about what it is and why we do it.
If Mona Van Duyn could keep writing poetry after the experience she describes here, so can we all.
A VISION TEST
Mona Van Duyn
My driver’s license is lapsing and so I appear
in a roomful of waiting others and get in line.
I just master a lighted box of far or near,
a highway language of shape, squiggle and sign.
As the quarter-hours pass I watch the lady in charge
of the test, and think how patient, how slow, how nice
she is, a kindly priestess indeed, her large,
round face, her vanilla-pudding, baked-apple-and-spice
face in continual smiles as she calls each “Dear”
and “Honey” and shows first-timers what to see.
She enjoys her job, how pleasant to be in her care
rather than brute little bureaucrat or saleslady.
I imagine her life as a tender placing of hands
on her children’s hands as they come to grip with the rocks
and scissors of the world. The girl before me stands
in a glow of good feeling. I take my place at the box.
“And how are you this lovely morning, Dear?
A few little questions first. Your name?—Your age?—
Your profession?” “Poet.” “What?” She didn’t hear.
“Poet, I say loudly. The blank pink page
of her face is lifted to me. “What?” she says.
“POET,” I yell, P-O-E-T.”
A moment’s silence. Poet?” she asks. “Yes.”
Her pencil’s still. She turns away from me
to the waiting crowd, tips back her head like a hen
drinking clotted milk, and her “Ha ha hee hee hee”
of hysterical rings through the room. Again
“Oh, ha ha ha ha hee hee hee.”
People stop chatting. A few titter. It’s clear
I’ve told some marvelous joke they didn’t quite catch.
She resettles her glasses, pulls herself together,
pats her waves. The others listen and watch.
“And what are we going to call the color of your hair?”
she asks me warily. Perhaps it’s turned white
on the instant, or green is the color poets declare,
or perhaps I’ve merely made her distrust her sight.
“Up to now it’s always been brown.” Her pencil trembles,
then with an almost comically obvious show
of reluctance she lets me look in her box of symbols
for normal people who know where they want to go.
I love this. I always think that if I answer “writer and painter” the person asking will think I’m not good at either one. So I usually pick the one I think he or she will find most believable.