Friday, July 13, 2018

Poetry Friday: Calling Yourself a Poet

Recently I heard a poet on a podcast say that he never calls himself a poet. He said a poet is what he wants to be more than anything, but he prefers to let other people use the word because he feels it's pretentious to use it himself. Who was the poet? I have no idea; I thought I could find the quote again and didn't write it down. I did learn, while hunting for the podcast, that there are many poets who feel sheepish about using the word; here's an article that discusses the idea.

To me, it's all right to use the word "poet" about yourself if you write poetry. You aren't saying you're a great poet or even a good one; you're simply saying that you write poetry. I do, so I'm a poet.  Just as I call myself a reader because I read and a mother because I have children and a walker because I walk, I call myself a poet because I write poetry.

Even so, it's nice when others think of me as a poet, and I had an experience like that last week.  A friend commented that something that had just happened was symbolic and then she added, "Ruth will probably write a poem about it." (You'll have to take my word for it that she didn't say this in a mocking way but sounded as though she'd actually like to read such a piece.) In fact I had already made a note in my head that this event would be a great topic for a poem. Later I took the note from my head and wrote it down on my phone, and it's a good thing because otherwise it might have gone the way of the quote from...whoever that guy was who doesn't call himself a poet.
I had gone with my friends that day to their cabin in the woods. I've spent time there every summer except one since 2011, and every year I've written poems about it and shared many with them.

Earlier this summer I listened to this podcast, an interview with Michael Longley. It has lots of great stuff in it, but one of the parts I enjoyed most was when he talked about going to his cabin, a place called Carrigskeewaun, where he's been going regularly since 1970.

Krista Tippett said, "I want to ask you also about the mystery of place. And so, Carrigskeewaun is a cottage in County Mayo that you and your wife and family have gone back to it, I believe, for over many years. And you said something wonderful about the beauty of going back to the same place over and over again, that you notice more and more. It’s not that you exhaust a place; that you go more deeply into it."

Longley responded, "Yes, it’s inexhaustible. Mind you, it is very beautiful, and it’s very remote. And we’ve been going there since 1970. And we carried our children through the river and through the channel, and now they come back over — such a compliment to my wife and me that the children want to spend time with us. And they come back, and they now bring their children, our grandchildren on their shoulders through this really quite tough terrain. Every time I leave, I think, 'Well, there can be no more Carrigskeewaun poems. I’ve exhausted it.' But there always are poems, and the place is inexhaustible. I mean, you know this — the phrase, 'Travel broadens the mind.' We do quite a bit of traveling. But I think it also shallows the mind. But going back to the same place in a devoted way and in a curious way is a huge part of my life. And I’ll be going there even when they have to push me in a wheelchair."

(Listen to the rest here.)

I've so enjoyed traveling this summer, back to places I've been many times. I didn't realize how much I needed some things to look at that were separate from my usual life in Haiti.  I love Haiti deeply, and it is home, but I needed a break, and I'm thankful I've been able to have one. (Plus you may have seen in the news that things have been sort of difficult there this summer. I don't take my privilege for granted. There are plenty of people in Haiti who needed a break this summer way more than I did and who didn't get it, but instead got trouble and a worsening of their already challenging lives.) Going somewhere new would have been great too (and I did do some of that), but it was wonderful to go to some familiar places, places I already love, inexhaustible places.

Here's a poem I wrote about the cabin in 2011.  It's about fall, a time I haven't ever been there, so I was just going from photos and descriptions and imagination.

Morning at the Cabin, September 2011

Mug of coffee in hand
He sits back on his rocking chair
And watches this day arrive.
He has a front row seat.
Each tree, each blade of grass
And each invasive cattail
Takes its place for the performance to begin.
He holds his breath.
Has anyone read this play?
Can anyone say what will happen next?
Perhaps a deer will enter,
Perhaps a squirrel.
Some leaves are reddening.
All the elements are in place
For a drama.
All that's needed is time to stare
And that, he has.
He takes a sip of his coffee.

Ruth, from

I wouldn't put that poem on the same level as anything that Michael Longley has written, but is it a poem?  Yep.  And did I write it?  I sure did.  So do I call myself a poet?  You bet I do.

There will be more poems from the cabin; it's inexhaustible. I came away with a whole list of ideas. They will give me memories and poems for the whole year.

Bonus: I wrote this post about the cabin in 2012.

Here's today's roundup.


Tabatha said...

I agree that if you write poems, you're a poet.
Your poem made me give a happy sigh, as so many of your poems do.

Irene Latham said...

Ruth: I LOVE THIS POST. I am so drawn to these ideas about "inexhaustible" places. I have struggled with that in the past: return to the same/go someplace new? We need both. Clearly. And yes, you are a poet, and yes, Ruth will write a poem about it. Sharing this with my husband, whom will love it and get it and be nourished by your words and your poem especially! Thank you, dear poet-friend. xo

Donna Smith said...

I had (maybe still have slightly) that bias, that being called a poet comes from someone else, not self. But I like your analogy...I'm a mother. No one else had to call me one for me to assume that title.
And I LOVE the familiar being looked at more closely, from different angles and under different circumstances. That is what I like to do. A friend of my daughter's last week said, "I feel bad that your mom is sitting up there by herself, probably bored." They were down by the water with the kids. I wanted them to have time together - which they don't get much of. And I loved my daughter's reply. "She's never bored." To which her friend who also knows me well, laughed and agreed. I was looking more closely from a distance, enjoying the shade, watching all the beach activity, the insects on the tree beside me, the gull playing king of the mountain atop the fort. I was far from bored - experiencing it all!
Thank you for this wonderfully validating post.

Linda B said...

I would call you a poet and often a poet I admire because you speak of the things that I love, too. I feel a kinship. I love this, Ruth, and the line "All that's needed is time to stare". I enjoyed the parts about place as well. My family has spent the past 5 years at the same house on the beach, but this year we are going elsewhere & while I'm excited, I also am somewhat sad to miss that house that holds good, good memories for us all. I'm glad about your fun travels, and have seen the Haiti news, hope things are settling down a bit. I'm sorry for the upset. Thanks for all your sweet post.

Amy @ Experience Imagination said...

I am an accidental poet. Since high school (when I did intentionally write poetry in the form of song lyrics), I haven't much tried to write poems. They just keep leaping out from my head, fully formed, like Athena emerging from the skull of Zeus. Finally, a couple of months ago I decided to admit I do write poetry, even when I don't always mean to. :)

Linda Mitchell said...

Ruth, what a beautiful podcast of MICHAEL LONGLEY. I enjoyed that so much. Thank you for sharing it. I think your poem of response is spot on with the mood and the transcendental feel that Mr. Longley describes. Seeing nature prepare for the sunrise....the stare, the sip of coffee. What a beautiful post. Thank you.

Kathryn Apel said...

Such an honest, reflective post, Ruth. It's funny, because whilst I was on my May Gibbs Fellowship, I actually realised that I am now more a poet than a writer. Rarely do I write anything that isn't poetry of some form... Which is not to say that I could mix it with the 'big kids' who write adult's poetry! (That still scares me!) But I did, after contemplation, decide that I was comfortable with the title 'children's poet'.

SW said...

Not only are you a poet, you are my Favorite Poet! Keep writing!

Sylvia Vardell said...

So many things to think about and ponder here! Love the exploration of being a poet and poetry podcasts!

Brenda at FriendlyFairyTales said...

I've read many, many of your poems. Indeed, you are a poet and a thoughtful person. I like you very much.

Mary Lee said...

I love the no-nonsense way you claim the identity of Poet. I think I'll follow your lead and be less hesitant to claim the title!

I'm in such a writing slump this summer, but this post gives me hope. It's just a slump. The ideas aren't gone, the will to write isn't gone, the poems haven't all been written.

Sally Murphy said...

Yes you are indeed a poet, but I must confess that I sometimes have the fear of calling myself a poet. I suffer from impostor syndrome and have to work hard at overcoming it.

I love the concept of an inexhaustible place. I have one of those - my beach.

laurasalas said...

Ruth--I love this! I confess it took me years and many published books before I called myself a writer. And poet felt harder still. Not sure why. Because I agree: if you write poems (especially if you write poems regularly), you are a poet. And you are a poet. I love the poem you share here, and also the thoughts about new places vs. the familiar ones. Thank you for this...I'll be thinking about this for a while, I know. Especially as we prepare to move across town and my familiar daily places will all change.

Kay said...

Yes, yes, yes! If you write poems, you are a poet. I do believe that, but I'll leave it to others to determine what kind! I am another of the fans of your poetry. I have a few of those inexhaustible places that I love to return to again and again. I pray that the people of Haiti--you and your family included--can find a way through the current difficulties to create something better for all.

Buffy Silverman said...

I have to say I have trouble calling myself a poet (somehow I can say writer, but poet seems to be something more.) Of course you are correct, if you write poems than that's what you are. But still...Love the mood you've created at "Morning at the Cabin." Thanks for sharing it.

Heidi Mordhorst said...

You are a poet, indubitably. The cabin agrees. Haiti agrees.

Michelle Kogan said...

Your poem, "Morning at the Cabin, September 2011" and your dialogue before remind me of bits of Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" –Poets think deeply and write poetry–and so you are a poet. Thank you for your poems Ruth, and travels new and old–I like to find new things in areas I'm familiar with.

Molly Hogan said...

This post is so beautiful, from start to finish. I recently asked an author to sign a book at her book launch and she asked, "Are you a writer?" and I practically swallowed my tongue before I could stutter out..."Um, yes, sort of , trying to..." or something along those lines. Later I thought--Of course I'm a writer! I write every single day! Isn't it funny how such an obvious, true thing feels so weighted and difficult to say? I love your poetry and never question that you are a talented poet. Myself...hmmmm. That's still tough to say.
The thoughts from Michael Longley about going deeper into places really resonate with me. I love to visit the same place over and over and notice the nuanced changes. I love the idea of "inexhaustable" places and your poem captures the potential that I love in nature--the sense that anything can happen at any moment. I'm leaving your post with so many thoughts churning and will be back to reread. Thank you for such a rich, beautifully crafted post!