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On Poets and Speakers

On Poets and Speakers

by Emily Vogel on December 13, 2010

One of the most curious aspects about poetry is that the element of “truth” presented in any given poem is never stable.  With this in mind, the truth that the reader must accept at face value is constructed by the poet out of his or her organic impulses, and must be credible simply because the poet pronounces that it is.  A question with which I have been wrestling for years is the idea that the poet and the “speaker” are possessed by two distinct and disconnected identities.  What I find fascinating is that I can read a poem about death, sadness, and strife, and in some cases, the suffering of the speaker, and then meet and converse with the poet who always seems to be a contented and well-adjusted individual.  This might evince the possibility that the speaker is not always espoused to the poet, but is rather something of the poet’s alternative identity.

In certain instances, this is not the case.  The idea that the speaker is the poet condemns the poet to a great deal of inner turmoil. The content of some poems would suggest then that poet as speaker is ailed with madness.  So why, when I go to poetry events do the poets all seem like regular people?  Why aren’t they screaming in the streets about their hallucinations?

As poets, I think we all must surrender to hallucinations.  There are those who will attest that every poet must be possessed by a bit of madness.  When I feel too “sane” I find it difficult to produce a good poem.  But if all poets harness that little bit madness when they write, then what they write must be fully believed as true.  The irony in this is that we don’t know exactly whether the poem then becomes a “lie,” later on when we go to the grocery store and happily shop for hamburger meat without breaking into sobs for the plight of the cows.  We just go through the check-out line with our meat, exchange pleasantries with the cashier, go home and cook dinner.  It seems almost dangerous to retain a bit of that madness when interacting with the percentage of unpoetic minds.

I once read a poem in which the speaker claims that he spent three days in a closet and then solved most of the world’s problems.  So I imagined that this was actually true of the poet.  I wonder if this was true, and if after he emerged from his sabbatical in the closet, he drove his kids to school, cleaned the house, and paid his taxes.  So is it perilous for the poet to become the speaker?  I don’t know.  If a poet writes about standing on a cliff and contemplating whether or not to jump, do we check the poet into the psychiatric unit?  Or do we send an imaginary speaker to the psychiatric unit?

If the poet puts on a mask in order to inhabit the madness and grandiosity of the speaker, then what is it in us that can allow us to go out, eat our dinner politely, and carry on a conversation about recipes and yoga?  Where does the poet go when she writes about being somebody’s shadow and love letters up in flame?  How does she then give a reading in a bookstore where they are serving punch and cookies and not be denounced for her schizo-affective depression?  How does she then shake hands and sign books and smile?  Does she go home and tear off all the wallpaper in a fit of despair and then swallow two bottles of aspirin with a bottle of vodka?  Or does she just write about doing this?

Because honestly, most would say that a poem about tearing off all the wallpaper and swallowing two bottles of aspirin with a bottle of vodka is much more interesting than just saying “I forgot to brush my teeth last night.”  So must the speaker live through the poet?

I don’t know.  But we can make our dental neglect interesting, without endangering our own lives.  If the speaker takes over, then what the speaker claims is true is true, and as readers, we must accept this truth.  Someone once told me that all poets are liars.  If this is the case, then what are they lying about?  Does the poet lie through the speaker or does the poet lie about her sanity while buying hamburger meat?  Obviously, the former is more compelling.

I have arrived at the conclusion that poets, then, must have a handle on their madness in order to work with publishers.  Publishers don’t care about your mental instabilities.  They don’t care if you woke up and had a nervous breakdown because you forgot to brush your teeth last night.  They care about metaphor, allusion, command of language.  They care about what readers would appreciate as quality poetry.  So must we assume this madness in order to write and then tell the psychiatrist that everything is going along swimmingly?  Must we write about spending three days solving the problems of world in a closet, or must we really do so?  How far must we go to procure truth?

This is what I mean when I say that the truth is constructed, and through that, an identity from which we may be disconnected.  We must carry our speakers around like children and care for them.  If our speakers die, or say that they died in the poem, then the poet must go on living, liberated from strife.  She must buy hamburger meat.  She must brush her teeth.  She must tear off all the wallpaper, in her mind. And she must always emerge from the madness of the poem into a sense of normalcy, whatever that normalcy is, if normal at all.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Adamjfitz December 13, 2010 at 8:12 pm

So help me here, Em, you assume poets and speakers are the same or different? You want them to be the same or different?

Here’s my criticism: we have to fend as hard as we can against the sentimentality of the mad artist—because it misleads wanna-be artists, it trivializes art (sane or insane membranes alike). The clinical status of a Van Gogh is not without human interest—but chaos never produced art. That’s only the beautiful lie of art. Ditto for madness. Ditto for sanity. Ditto for biography. Ditto for “impersonality.” That’s all just the smoke and folderol we’ve arranged to side-step and make our inarticulateness dreamy.

Greenhousecat7 December 13, 2010 at 9:08 pm

Wow. This has always been a big part of my hesitation to share my work. Thank you. :) Truly.

Greenhousecat7 December 13, 2010 at 9:08 pm

Wow. This has always been a big part of my hesitation to share my work. Thank you. :) Truly.

Joe Weil via Facebook December 13, 2010 at 8:06 pm

I’m glad I turned the show over to you.You’re a fine writer, and it’s amazing to see what you come up with every day.Whenever I get sick of this literary world, and wish the hell I had never written a poem, you remind me what I love about poetry. Thanks, love.

Ute Margaret Saine via Facebook June 6, 2012 at 6:18 pm

What you write is true, of course, but it’s not just a question of the poet’s ‘alternative identity’, but that writing the poem may have actually helped the poet to overcome the sad situation. Through the mirror of beauty in art and literature we can perceive without pain even death.

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