The distinction between what it is that constitutes the “amateur” poet and what constitutes the “expert” is slippery, yet should be considered in an extensive discussion. To begin, let me address the amateur’s typical testimonies: “I write to express my emotions,” or “No, I would never show my poetry to anyone!” The truth is that all poets want readers. One of the differences between the amateur and the expert is that the amateur feels he is at the risk of exposing something “personal” about himself, and is hesitant because he feels he will either be made to feel vulnerable or will be relegated to the subject of ridicule, while the expert, on the other hand, disguises and crafts his poetry through a language and imagistic lens which allows him to remain distanced from the poem, and what the poem speaks to. If a novice poet wants to be recognized, it is usually not about inventiveness of metaphor or image, but because he wants not feel so alone, because he wants someone to know his pain, and because perhaps, he is masking as someone who resists conformity or is practicing all the semiotics of how he assumes a poet should present himself to the world.
Let me elaborate. When I was a high school student in the tenth grade, I ate my lunch alone in one of the cubicles in the library, wore “goth” clothing, and pierced my own ears with a sterilized safety pin. The trouble with wearing your pain in a semiotic costume is that the person wants to be noticed, and often times saved. Eventually a teacher noticed me and told me that I ought to be writing poetry. So I wrote horrendous poems and prayed to God that someone cared about my inner turmoil. I’ve seen this plenty of times with high school students, and even freshman college writers. Why do poets insist that they are required to write about their own pain? Maybe it is because pain is more intriguing than writing about a Christmas that goes along merrily and just as planned, or because since the punk rock era, pain is “fashionable.”
The expert poet might be in pain, but somehow has learned not to indulge in it. He has taken poetry workshops and knows that he must mask this pain behind an exterior that appears normalized, and not sit around the workshop table sulking. He has learned not have a nervous breakdown when someone attacks his poem, because it is neither “professional” nor socially appropriate. He knows how to assume an air of aloofness or arrogance where it is necessary. He knows how to cajole publishers and editors with a subtle charisma. In some respects, he has lost his innocent and bleeding heart to “the business.”
Here is where the amateur exhibits more authenticity. He has not surrendered himself to competition or the battlefield of what he wants to seem like effortless metaphor and allusion. The amateur simply wants to be recognized as human, with something to say, and not necessarily for any other audience other than that mentor (and we have all had those) who will assume the role of therapist, or savior, or suicide prevention official. The problem with this is that the poetry gets lost in the need to feel important.
So the expert is made to feel important by extensive publications, and laudation, not necessarily for the poet himself as person, but for his brilliant rhetorical tactics. The amateur poet might write about the “hissing wind” as opposed to “anorexic women floating away in the wind,” and this might be so important to him that his heart breaks. So does the almost ersatz recognition of twenty editors make the expert feel better for his gratified ego, or does this just leave him feeling empty, in that unrequited manner he can’t expose behind his flashing smile? Does he want to be loved for his humanity or for the name on the page?
The truth is, no one can take a name on a page out for a romantic dinner. A poet CAN be taught to twist his pain into clever metaphor and image, but at the same time, must have healthy relationship to his sanity.
The advantage of being married to another poet who recognizes me for my humanness and also (the horror) loves me more than he loves my poetry is that I know I can break down in a hysterical fit of tears over nothing, while at the same time he can say, “edit the lineation in the poem.” I am by far an expert, though I have been fortunate to attract the literary eye of many editors. Suffice it to say that the recognition of my work can never be a substitute for the love that my husband gives to me. It is certainly fantastic to have your work recognized, but if you don’t have someone to make you less alone, and someone who recognizes your pain as something he wants to save you from, than the idea of real human interaction is obliterated.
My advice to both amateurs and experts: care for yourself first. If the roof caves in and you walk outside your front door some morning to find a dead raccoon, write about it. If you go to a carnival and the balloons look lonely, investigate why. Tell your loved one about the lonely balloons in your sleep, and then sigh when he kisses you and makes the balloons seem less lonely. Tell him that the instrumental version of “C’mon it’s Lovely Weather for a Sleigh Ride Together with You” upsets you because of the sound of the whip against the reindeer’s posterior. But never lose your wanderlust, and be naïve about the world. Do not indulge in the pain of having no one show up for your fortieth birthday celebration in literal terms. Personify the wall or the tea kettle. See yourself as a medium, and speak through objects and images which might implicitly reveal your pain, but not render it the primary focus of the poem. Speak through “things.” Speak through “event,” as a bystander and unassuming observer. Be the corner of the room where the dust gathers. And never underestimate the amateur poet. Cater to his insanity. As an editor, in the words of my husband, “see what the poem wants to say or do.” Regard the poem as an extension of someone whose voice must be crafted in order to be heard. Poetry, as necessity, should never neglect the person behind the poem.