Wednesday, January 26, 2011

In Which the Author Takes Presumptuous Umbrage with Galway Kinnell

Just when I resolve to be comfortable calling myself a poet, along comes the estimable Galway Kinnell with this little bit of rebuke in American Poetry Review:

A poet should not call himself a "poet." Being a poet is so marvelous an accomplishment that it would be boasting to say it of oneself. I thought this well before I read that Robert Frost took the same view.

At the risk of impudence, I think Mr. K. is completely wrong.

Being a "poet" just means you've written a poem, know it's a poem, and know what you did to write it. Being an accomplished poet is a different thing entirely, but to be aware enough to know what goes into creating poems and then skilled enough to create those poems is not something we should be reluctant to name in ourselves.

Look at it this way: I'm an engineer. I don't need anyone to tell me that I have the credentials for that title. I have the knowledge requirements (through education). I have the behavioral tendencies (a relentless quest to fill my head with details on how things work*). And I have the tangible output, among which is an issued patent, publication in conference proceedings, products launched, etc., all of which are work products deemed acceptable by technologists other than me. I am an engineer.

Am I a good engineer? Well, 20+ years of continuous employment in the field suggest that I probably am, and when I look over my career portfolio, I admit that I think I'm pretty good. In the end, of course, the quantitation** of that goodness something others will do. It's for my boss and his peers to evaluate at my job. It's for my peers to consider when they choose to come to me (or not come to me) for counsel. It's for young professionals to ponder when they decide if mine is a career path they would emulate. But I'm an engineer. This is not debatable.

Likewise, I'm a poet. I have sufficient knowledge in the art to define it and to distinguish it from "greeting card verse". I have the behaviors that cause me to mull over word choice like Snoopy on a dark and stormy night and to find the occasional line so compelling in my ear that I repeat it until my tongue aches. I have the tangible output in journals managed by poets whose talents are not debated.

Am I a good poet? Well, I have some ground cleared for a career there - albeit a smaller foundation than the one I've built in engineering. And I would argue that just I am aware of at least some level of proficiency in my engineering, I am aware of some level of proficiency in my poetry. I recognize elegance in analysis and I recognize the witness markings of poetic craft. Yes, I believe I'm a good poet; if I didn't, I'd not be here. But irrespective of my opinion of myself, I am a poet.

This is not debatable.

* - for example, I probably know more about the design of beverage bottle closures than all but the people who work with them daily. I certainly know more about them than most people care to know. Not because I work in the field, but because I think it's neat to know.

** - Yes, it's a word.

No comments: