The Title of Poet: praise word or description?

There has been discussion about what a poet is and whether one can confer the title on oneself. I was tentative for a long time about calling myself a poet. Many say a poet is someone who writes poems. But what makes something a poem? When I was a very young poet (13 or 14), I used to show my work to people and ask’ is this a poem?’ by which I meant ‘does it do what poems are meant to do, is it magic?’That is why I don’t believe in bad poems, if it’s bad, it’s not a poem. William Carlos Williams said ‘if it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem’.
By calling oneself a poet, if one simply means that one writes poems, I don’t have an issue with that. But the secondary definition is that a poet is a ‘person with great imagination and creativity’. I don’t feel I could say that about myself unless other people said it about me first.
Matt Simpson always said poet was a ‘praise’ word. There is a tradition behind this assertion. So I used to call myself a writer of poems, or just a writer – which is true enough because I do write other things, such as critique books for Greenwich Exchange, chapters of books aimed at undergraduates, GCSE textbooks. But these are by products of my teaching career. I have written poems since I was very young, but when I read Robert Graves’ The White Goddess’ at 15, I decided to dedicate myself to poetry. I read Auden’s essay ‘The Dyer’s Hand’ too, and from these texts gleaned that I needed to immerse myself in poetry and learn from the masters. I tried every form in Frances Stillman’s Poetry Manual. A poet needs to have the knowledge, to read, to learn from the best, and to keep on doing so.
I was almost 19 when I first met Matt Simpson. We gradually moved from mentor/ mentee roles into friends who commented on each other’s poems, a shift which evolved over a long period. I dedicated my first collection, Dandelions for Mother’s Day (Stride 1988) to him in recognition of my debt to him.
In 2009, he had a heart bypass operation. He was fully aware that he might not pull through and horrified me by describing it as ‘an awfully big adventure’. He had the operation on the Monday and it was a relief that it appeared to have gone well. I went to visit him in hospital on a beautiful June day. He hadn’t wanted me to go and see him in intensive care but I was so glad I did. It was to be the last time I ever saw him. This poem was written a few days later, after his death:

Hospital Visiting

I trace your steps
from hospital car park
in warm evening sun
impatient to see you.

A machine helps me find
a path to you through grey
shiny corridors, up stairs
and over bridges, through

protocols and passwords,
hand gels to sanctify me,
like holy water in church,
before I can touch you.

I have to ask where you are.
The medics have claimed you
though I’m allowed
to squiggle on to a high stool.

We think this is all temporary,
that soon we’ll have you home,
a new man. We’ve plans for you.
You say it’s kind of me to come.

As if I could stay away. You know
I love you. You introduce me
to your favourite nurse, the one
with the film star eyes. Tell her

‘This is my friend Ange, a poet too.’
Not a title to be claimed for oneself,
but you gave it freely, a last bequest
in your final days of life. *

Whether one subscribes to the notion of poet as a title conferred, as Matt did, or sees it purely as meaning someone who writes poems, what Matt said to me on that visit was a great gift, and I know he did it deliberately.

I read it as giving me that long-withheld title, out of love and respect, of passing the baton to me, of telling me to go forward with my poetry despite him not being there to critique and encourage me, as he always had done, his way of saying I was a fully-fledged poet, which indeed he had said in a review but not to my face.

And it is why I now feel able to call myself a poet.

*This poem first appeared in my Salt Modern Voices pamphlet I Sing of Bricks and was united with the remaining poems from the 17 poem elegiac sequence I wrote for Matt, from my Rack Press pamphlet Catching On in my collection Paper Patterns (Lapwing 2012)

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “The Title of Poet: praise word or description?

  1. faye joy

    What a poignant thoughtful piece of writing, the poem cativates utterly, thanks for this Angela!

  2. Reblogged this on Carolyn O' Connell and commented:
    Good definitation

  3. Fred Johnston I lose candidates in my creative writing classes when I say that writing a poem is not the same as being a poet. Many people can write a poem; not everyone is a poet. But because some writing tutors who should know better have told students that ‘ there’s a poet in all of you,’ we’ve ended up with blurred lines and even murkier vision. Look to the example of, say, Robert Graves or Kathleen Raine. A true poet has no choice but to write poetry, to study it, to read it, and in a greater sense, to live it. The proliferation of ‘performance poetry,’ which is a genre of its own more akin to stand up comedy, is also responsible for anyone stepping on a stage with a raggedy rant about his old man calling himself a poet – in some instances, even being rewarded for it. Publishers too have a role to play: some certainly tend to publish on the grounds of their clients’ media or events profile. This is about sales, not poetry. I am reminded of the woman in a class I gave at a festival who, on being asked why she chose to sign up for writing poetry, held up her thumb and forefinger slightly parted and said ‘Because poems are small.’ Everyone and his/her aunt now claims to be a poet and gets worked up if you say they are prose writers splitting paragraphs and lines, nothing more. They have acolytes who will spit and hiss in their defence. In every one hundred claiming to be a poet, there is probably one who really is a poet. One writes and writes and gets it wrong until poetry becomes one’s life. One apprentices in small magazines and the like. It is a long process. But we live in an age of ‘instant’ poets. That’s why we have a great deal of mediocre poetry.

  4. There is something very special in the life dedicated to poetry, that another dedicated person recognises

  5. Interesting. I recall Matt telling me that he’d visited Norman Nicholson when Norman was in hospital. Matt said that Nicholson was very proud of the fact that one of the nurses had referred to him not just as a patient but as a poet.

  6. Pingback: The Title of Poet: praise word or description? | Carolyn O' Connell

  7. Reblogged this on Angela Topping and commented:

    I am not the only one who thinks like this.

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