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Should We Restrict the Title of 'Poet'?

Here’s an interesting with Ryan Van Winkle conducted by the Scottish Book Trust. One commenter (anonymous, of course) got upset over Ryan’s answer to ‘What’s the best thing about being a poet?’ Ryan isn’t comfortable with calling himself a ‘poet’ and the commenter didn’t seem to understand that his answer wasn’t supposed to be altogether serious. That’s the problem with the Internet so often – humour, irony, sarcasm don’t always travel.

Personally, I’ve had no difficulty in calling myself a poet but that’s because, to me, a ‘poet’ is simply someone who writes poetry. It might be good, bad or indifferent poetry but if someone writes it, then they’re a good, bad or indifferent ‘poet’. I don’t care much what other people call themselves. It all comes down to the words in the end, the poems. That’s what counts. The aim is to write good poems, not to achieve some kind of meaningless title. That’s always been my attitude.

In many countries, such as Syria (which Ryan mentions in his passport story at the interview), poets are held in very high regard, although people can only be publicly ‘smitten’ by the officially sanctioned ones. There may be a certain loosening in that regard, if this story about the weekly Damascus literary salon is anything to go by. It does explain why the stern military-type customs officials were so taken by Ryan’s ‘poet’ designation on his customs card. It’s obviously a big deal there to write poetry and it has value to the society of a kind money can’t buy. I think a society loses that attitude at its peril, although Britain may well have already lost it.

Perhaps if I lived in Syria, I may be less keen to use the word ‘poet’ of anyone who writes poetry, as it clearly confers cultural status. Maybe in Britain I am complicit in society’s downgrading of poetry by so far refusing to attach value to the title of ‘poet’. Our society thunders against elitism, while eagerly creating and maintaining its own elite classes (the rich, celebrities, actors, supermodels etc). A nation’s elite groups reveal the common values (money, power, glamour, fame etc) people tend to live for.

What Do You Think?

Should we restrict the title of ‘poet’ to a few, mainly dead, poets? Not so much as a mark of respect, but as a political act, a symbol of what we believe has value?

This Post Has 48 Comments

  1. “to me, a ‘poet’ is simply someone who writes poetry. It might be good, bad or indifferent poetry but if someone writes it, then they’re a good, bad or indifferent ‘poet’.”

    I agree. The trouble with the question though, is that it really means “what do you do for a living”. In most cases that isn’t poetry (try making a living at it and I’ll see you down the benefit office) and if it were, some folk would be ashamed to admit that they did something they liked for a living, when so many have to do something they hate. There’s a story of Brentano’s where a writer is asked by an old lady what he does for a living and he hesitates to say “Dichter” (poet) or “Schriftsteller” (prose writer) because he knows she won’t think either a proper job. In the end he says “Schreiber”, which means writer, but in the sense of clerk, which she htinks respectable. Curiously enough a Scot could of course once have said “writer” with much the same effect, since it meant a lawyer!

    Of course the other reason not to say “poet” is that your interlocutor is liable to reply, with a mad gleam in his eye, “I write a bit myself…” and offer to send you his life’s work by post.

  2. I agree with you Sheenagh, people are usually asking what you do for a living when they ask ‘what do you do?’. I am comfortable saying I’m a poet now, outside of that context , but it’s taken me a long time to get there! (a degree & now a Masters in creative writing). My council estate background sits on my shoulder & calls me all sorts of abusive names as I speak the word though!

  3. Writing and revising poetry is something I do for a fairly long time every day. I take it very serious, and it has become – whilst not ‘paid’ work – far more than a hobby. It’s ‘what I do.’ So I can sympathise with the view that ‘a writer is someone who writes’ (an adage I once read in a how-to book) and that by extention, ‘a poet is someone who writes poetry.’ A short time ago, I’d have been very happy to call myself a poet among friends.

    But I have just this year started to publish. I’ve now been published twice, so I’m very new and in a way, the whole thing’s terrifying. You’re sending your work out to be enjoyed, but also judged in the minds of readers.

    So let’s get to the point: my biggest confusion is probably whether to call myself a poet. On my blog, for example, I say that ‘I write poetry’, because then it doesn’t feel as if any massive claims are being made. But I read a lot of blogs, by a lot of people who I respect very much as very good poets, and far further along the road than I am. Do I associate myself with them by calling myself a ‘poet’? Or do I humbly (and fearfully) admit that I’m not quite the same thing as them, but my plan is to one day be?

    I don’t know the answer, so I’ve done nothing but raise questions. But let me just say thankyou for writing this blog post, and I look forward to any insights or ideas people might have.

  4. I distrust anyone who describes himself/herself as a ‘poet’ – particularly if they include this title in their email address or website. ‘Poet’ is a title necessarily bestowed upon you by others.

    There are only about three or four professional poets who might be the exception to this rule ie they make their entire income from writing poetry, but nearly all the poets I know earn their living elsewhere.The FAQ ‘Are you a poet?’ should receive the reply – ‘That’s for others to say’.

  5. Before I retired this year I’d spent most of my working life writing software for a living and called myself a ‘programmer’. For a number of years I have also written poetry.

    When asked at a party what I do for a living I found that the best answer was to change the subject, because calling myself a either programmer or a poet usually ended the conversation.

  6. Is there so much squeamishness about the use of the term “Novelist”? Plenty of published literary novelists can’t make a living at it either, these days….

  7. I do wince internally when described as a ‘poet’ (which happens rarely, as anyone who has read any of my poems will be unsurprised to learn). I usually laugh and then politely correct the description to ‘someone who writes poetry’ which seems somehow less pretentious. I have never described myself as a poet, and neither my employer nor the taxman would describe me as a poet. I earn my living from other things, and imagine there are only a handful of people who make a living solely through poetry. I am confident I will never be one of them, but good on those who do. The only millionaire poet I know is Felix Dennis, and he didn’t make his money from writing poetry, but he does describe himself as a ‘poet’.

  8. The person who knows what you are is yourself. For good or for bad, it’s what’s in your heart that counts and matters.
    I believe that calling yourself a poet is honouring your art and it is absolutely not a pretentious title to call yourself.
    A person should be true regarding who they are, and not buying into social rules such as- ‘I am a poet only when I’m getting paid for my poems and recognised by the wider public.’

  9. I remember the first time I had to say ‘I am Adele Ward. I am a poet.’ It was quite an extraordinary feeling. It was the first day of an MA in creative writing and we were in a room with all the students specialising in fiction or poetry. We had to introduce ourselves just by name and by saying if we were ‘poet’ or ‘fictioner.’

    So, to me the answer is that we call ourselves this for a specific reason. Before that I had always written poetry but I ‘was’ different things – journalist, librarian, editor. To say ‘I’m a poet’ can imply it’s my main work activity, or, on the course, my main area of study. But it all depends where we are and what sort of question we’re answering.

    Usually I would have said ‘I write poetry’ to people who were interested. Even now I think I’d rather say ‘I’m a writer’. But I think it’s very clear that we would call some people ‘a poet’ as it’s what they’re known for.

    Having said that, I do think it can also be said in a casual way just to mean ‘I write poetry’. At an open mic if people said ‘I’m a poet’ or ‘I’m just hear with my friend to listen. My friend is the poet’ that would make perfect sense.

    We do know how to differentiate between when people say ‘he/she is a poet’ meaning they’re highly accomplished in this form, and when they mean that the person enjoys writing poetry which could be hobbyist or more successful. I think we also have a high regard for the most accomplished poets, but there’s no need to restrict who can say they’re a poet.

    Some people are artists in the main art galleries and some people are – well, artists who enjoy painting. And there are all sorts of levels in between. It’s all called ‘artist’ and it’s all called ‘poet’. And somebody who seems like a hobbyist can suddenly surprise.

  10. You can always circumvent the self-adulation by saying or writing “I tell stories” as so much reading and writing of worth has a narrative element.
    There’s always the conversation-stopper a female English-teacher and writer friend of mine used to use at parties full of strangers to subvert expectations: “I’m a soft-core pornographer who always fails to get hard!”

  11. It’s fair to say that there is a general reluctance for people to call theirselves poets or be called a poet, it’s almost as if only a select few can confer that title on you or you have to become so famous that society accepts you as a poet. A celebrated poet seems to be the only only one that fits the bill in this society. But what of all those poets that write for their own sake and never want to publish but to share their poetry only with loved ones or not at all. Is their time unimportant? Are their words insignnificant?
    How do we allow established poets to subjectively judge our poetry, is their opinion infallible?

    In the end its just a label, a political label that confers status. Its non use doesn’t diminish what you carry inside.

  12. The ambivalence about accepting the title ‘poet’ is that it involves more then just interacting with the page. It may be paid peanuts but it is a vocation, like the priesthood. Culturally, poets and poetry have always had a place in the collective unconscious. That’s why they are so dangerous. That’s why a lot of them land in prison. That’s why a dictatorships like to put an imprimateur on ‘proper’, politically acceptable, poets. Think of what happened to Soviet poets when they got booted from the Writer’s Union. And think of Osip Mandelstam in Siberia.

  13. @Sheenagh – “The trouble with the question though, is that it really means “what do you do for a living”. ”

    You make some good points, but Rob’s question was “Should we restrict the title of poet?”, not “What do you do?” – which I agree would normally refer to someone’s livelihood.

    Personally I always think of the title having a double meaning: (a) someone who writes poetry; (b) someone with real poetic magic in their words. It’s fine to describe yourself as the former, but for others to decide the latter.

    As Graves said, ‘poet’ is usually a courtesy title.

  14. I agree with Rob’s suggestion that it simply means ‘one who writes poetry’. However, a few further thoughts:

    Don Paterson has said that he is only a poet when actually writing poetry, which strikes me as being like saying we are only sexual beings when having sex.

    If we are to restrict the term ‘poet’, then I’d suggest asking the question ‘do 1000+ people know my poetry who do not know me?’

    Lastly, it’s more interesting to me to consider the difference between poets who are ‘poets’ and those who are ‘writers’. I’ve gone into this at length elsewhere and find that in general ‘poetry people’ in general know and agree the difference. If you have to ask…

  15. so long as people publish and read what I write as poetry as poetry I don’t reall;y mind what I’m called.

  16. When you’re as old as I am, people no longer ask what I do. They assume that my day is spent knitting in front of the television…. But if asked what I do all day and most evenings, I could truthfully say “mostly write poetry.”

  17. Lots of so called published poets are not dealing with poetry.
    I would love to see the title: poet, restricted, not for political reasons, of course.
    But I would like to see the standards of poetry revised.
    What is poetry. Clear definitions should be on the mind of the reviewers and of those who make the final choice for publication.
    I write poetry. I have not been published. I have been rejected. I will not call myself a poet until a standard board of review, with an ability to bypass certain established rules for a valuable reason will decide to publish me and to call me a poet.
    I understand that, with the evolution of mores and language and standards, poets will not write the way our old confirmed poets did.
    But we still should keep in mind: what does a text require to make it poetry? So many texts are simple prose, cut off in lines to make it look like a poem, or obscure texts that make one’s head spin in a world of nothingness, or simply texts without flight.
    I think that you should establish a board made up of poets and make them define as a group what poetry is. And these people on the board should have a simple soul, a respect for the words of others, no egocentric power plays. They should be gentle gurus, confirmed in their art, convinced, strict and generous.

  18. Vivienne Blake is soooooo right – beyond paid employment or when one has taken “early retirement” and is no longer “in the public eye” (as I was for classes when I taught), the assumption of too many casual acquaintances is that one has retired from any sort of “active life”.
    ‘Poet’ is the honour some people award to others who speak or write poems, just as to me Friend is as hard-won as a Knighthood or Peerage.
    Peers are only people who are “One of Us” (Mrs. Thatcher’s favourite moniker for people she approved of).
    Peers are not only in the House of Lords, but have been recognised by the Monarch and the State as “One of Us”.
    Sir Andrew Motion and Carol Ann Duffy are rather more-recognised as “toilers in the foothills of Parnassus” than certainly I am, but I aspire to equal Pound, Eliot, WH, UA and the rest of the gang.
    Always have.

  19. When you ignite your dying cells, and can create your happiness,
    from something called phrases that turns rhymes and enjoyment for others.
    Might others call you a poet.

  20. Joseph Brodsky

    Judge: And what is your profession in general?
    Brodsky: Poet translator.
    Judge: Who recognized you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?
    Brodsky: No one. And who enrolled me in the ranks of humanity?
    Judge: Did you study this?
    Brodsky: This?
    Judge: To become a poet. You did not try to finish high school where they prepare, where they teach?
    Brodsky: I didn’t think you could get this from school.
    Judge: How then?
    Brodsky: I think that it . . . comes from God.

  21. When other poets (that other poets have demed to be poets) refer to you as a poet and you feel comfortable with that,
    then you’re a poet.At a meeting we were told by an ex-Birmingham
    Poet Laureate that one can only be called a poet if it is either
    one’s living or one works in a close occupation, such as teacher. He of course fitted the perameters – pompous (poet?)

  22. I consider myself a poet when I am at my desk writing poetry. I don’t think of myself that way when I am working with clients as a salesman or consulting my tax accountant or going to the gym or the doctor. Sometimes I am a poet when I am in the shower, but not if I forget to write down whatever pops into my head. I was a poet briefly while shopping for groceries yesterday, but then encountered another person who writes poetry at the grocery store, and we both had to stop being poets for a moment in order to awkwardly say hello and talk about bread.

  23. Hi

    Why do I always seem to receive the blog 4 days later than everyone else?

    By the time I read it there are already 24 replies on it so no one would read all the way down to my thoughts anyway!

  24. what’s a ‘writer’, ‘painter’, ‘singer’, ‘artist’, etcetcetc; let’s stop being pretentious.

  25. @ Marion – Looks like there was a delay with the email delivery this week (mine arrived late too). Let me know if it happens to you again: mark at lateralaction dot com.

    And rest assured some of us read all the way down. 😉

    @Roddy @Sheenagh – I’d like to hear more about the ‘poets’ v ‘writers’ thing too.

  26. Please let’s make a clear distinction between a poem and words strung together as a form of therapy for the writer. Nothing wrong with the latter but the writer is NOT a poet. For definitions, please see Coleridge or Wallace Stevens or Adrienne Rich all of whom know what they’re doing and who they are/were and do not foist “mental beds’ on the world …

    When I cook I am not a chef …

  27. But if you wanted to call yourself a chef, I don’t know that there is anyone who can stop you, unless there’s a professional body. It’s reasonable to say no one can call themselves doctors or architects without the relevant professional qualification, but there isn’t one for poets, which is probably just as well!

  28. Jane… thanks for sending this proverb…“When I cook I am not chef”
    I know three languages…English poetry has little affect on me…
    They say the best poems are Persian…French…
    Both languages I don’t know…
    I know Armenian…Arabic(old poems) both are passionate when you read you must write…
    I feel Welsh poems ignite my senses more…Like war poems of Wilfred Owen, whose name is not mentioned in the poetry books… which is a real pity…cannot understand why, and I like poems of Dylan…without doubt.
    I can say, “ Every Language Vibrates A Soul”

  29. How wonderfully British a debate about titles and status. My single thought is that in the 21stC here on the web if you don’t tag and title you don’t get found. So be squeamish and class conscious snobbish and set a minimum bar at the seven poets who are genuinely known by more than 1000 people and enjoy the obscurity or spray the word about. In the information age if people are searching for poets and poetry googling “people who maybe write stories in a self conscious verse” is not likely to deliver you.

  30. I’m beginning to think this is a very personal thing….I’ve been writing poetry seriously for nine years, I’ve also had a fair amount published in Poetry Journals, and won a few modest prizes….. but I haven’t had a book/pamphlet published yet. I still think of myself as an ‘apprentice poet’ and won’t call myself a poet until I have reached the level of poetry I’m aiming for….which may take considerably more time. I believe a watchmaker’s apprenticeship used to be seven or eight years, so poetry, which, is accepted as the most difficult of writing forms, should surely have a far longer apprenticeship?
    Somehow, in my book, to call myself a poet at this point in time is tempting prividence!

  31. I wish more people would own up to their poetic aspirations.They’re can never be enough poets in this world.Poets undermine and topple what is not fair,or at least record it in a heartfelt way…

  32. ‘When I cook I am not a chef.’

    No, because there’s actually quite a strict criteria for being a chef. One must cook in a restaurant, for paying customers. But you are a ‘cook’, and possibly a very very good one. So what is the distinction between one who writes poetry at home, and one who cooks it in a restaurant? Is it something as arbitrary as money? Of course not. There are plenty of well-known foodmakers who aren’t, and have never been, chefs. But they are great at making food, and recognised as such.

  33. “Please let’s make a clear distinction between a poem and words strung together as a form of therapy for the writer”

    No. Why should I?

    Poets write poetry. People who write poetry are poets. Everything else is pomposity and hubris. You don’t have to be a good poet to be a poet. Simples.

  34. “Poets write poetry.
    People who write poetry are poets.
    Everything else is pomposity and hubris.
    You don’t have to be a good poet to be a poet.
    from Steven Waling – of interest because philosophy has tended to move more and more towards solipsisms.
    What interests me about this comment most is the way in which constant repetition of the observation “Simples” has permeated the English Language until the next catchphrase comes along, and that it is little wonder that so many vivid writers have at some earlier point in their careers have been employed as advertising copy-writers:
    Go to work on an egg – exceptional, but was it originated by Tom Stoppard, Salman Rushdie or Faye Weldon ?

  35. What if, like me, you make your money from writing (prose, poetry, theatre, journalism), publishing, readings/performances and literature development work?

    To me it just seems easier to call myself a writer, or at least a writer and publisher.

    Books and writing are involved with every facet of my working life, and the work I do is all based around the fact that I write and have certain skills that come with that which others respect and value. I have frequently called myself a ‘literary whore’, or as Tom Bradley said, ‘an all-round madman of letters’. But sometimes ‘poet’ is just the simplest term to describe a person for whom work revolves around a certain artform.

    At the same time, I appreciate that in different cultures the term ‘poet’ confers a kind of elite power. I’m glad that anyone who writes, performs and publishes poetry can be a poet, however, because it serves our culture better to put the means of cultural production into the hands of the many rather than the few. At the same time, it’d be much better if people relied on poets for their propaganda (or ‘news’) rather than certain media outlets, but realistically there’s little we can do about that.

  36. a clarification of my previous seemingly untenable stance: Anybody who makes money from poetry should be exempted from being described as a poet, while in the act of making money by teaching or by hawking their books but not while in the act of writing poetry. If you wouldn’t identify someone you pay for sex as your spouse or lover, why would you think of someone you pay for poetry as your poet. (I’ve taught poetry and led workshops, but while teaching I was simply a paid teacher or facilitator, a poetry prostitute, not a poet, as I am somewhat occasionally, while alone, in the shower or at my desk, or maybe I’m mistaking that for something else)

  37. David, I’m not sure your restrictive definition holds weight for me. So a poet is only a poet when he’s writing for those few hours every day, but when he gets in the shower or puts down the pen to answer the door, he’s suddenly something less than a poet? I understand your point, but I think it’s misguided. A poet is a poet, even when they’re not engaged in the primary act of writing poetry, just as a teacher at home making dinner is still a teacher.

    Similarly, those ‘hawking their books’ or teaching are making a living from their poetry. That’s how most poets make their money. Poetry books, as most of us know, don’t really sell a whole lot. Unless you’re lucky enough to be Carol Ann Duffy and thus become poet laureate, or you manage to secure a writer in residence post (which usually involves teaching anyway), few writers make money just from the act of sitting at a desk and writing poetry. Poets earn nothing unless they send their poems out for publication, sell copies of their books or otherwise use their skills to make money. These are all things other than writing that successful poets who wish to earn a living from their writing have to do, as I’m sure you’re aware.

    So while I understand where you’re coming from, I think your point is misleading. A poet is a poet, and engaging in other activities doesn’t stop them being a poet, even for a moment.

  38. I agree with Christopher North. I only call myself a poet now because Matt Simpson said I was one the last time I saw him a few days before he died. He blessed me with the title, validating me.
    It was Holub who first said you are only a poet when you are writing a poem, surely.

  39. I have had a similar question for quite a few years with the people that say: I am a humble person.

    Personally, I think a person cannot say that he or she is humble; the whole point of being so is not to mention it.(being truly a humble person that does not need the praise or recognition of anyone)

    I regard the words poet and artist as titles and such distinctions should be given by others due to of their magnificent and unique works. I think anyone that calls themselves poet or artist makes them wankers and they display the need to be recognized.

    If we see it as a part of a whole, I would say that the profession would be writer and the title of excellence ought to be poet. It reminds me one episode of Seinfeld where an orchestra director calls himself MAESTRO and everyone he meets does not mentions his name but Maestro.

    Bottom line, if you believe you are a poet then you are one but there is no need to say it to everyone. If you can prove it there is no need to say it.

  40. Some of these definitions seem needlessly elitist and snobbish to me.

    Must a poet wait for the great Dead White Poets to descend and grant them their title? Must they wait for a conclave of Oxbridge professors to ratify them? Must they speak only in iambic pentameter and only write poetry all day, even while they starve?

    Poet may, in various cultures and at various times, be a title. But I live in the 21st Century, and for the dictionary says a poet is a person who writes poetry. That’s good enough for me. Anything else is an argument about ‘worthiness’, which is something modern poetry has been trying to disentangle itself from for decades.

    Let people call themselves what they like and enough of the proscriptivism already.

  41. A “poet” is one who is well-versed in the art of writing. One who can reach to the inner depths of his/her soul and put pen to paper and simply let the magic flow from the fingertips. The famous dead poets were not all famous while they were alive, they were simply people who had this wonderful ability. I lable myself as a poet….I am not famous, but I am able to put pen to paper and let my imagination do the rest! To be a poet is a rare gift!

  42. A poet is a poet is a poet, to coin a phrase.
    How about changing the subject?

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