A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity–he is continually informing–and filling some other Body–The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute–the poet has none; no identity–he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures. (John Keats, from a letter to Richard Woodhouse, dated October 27, 1818; reprinted in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Seventh Edition, Volume 2, New York: 2000, p. 895)
For about the last fifteen years, since the beginning of high school, I have identified myself as a poet. Whether I was composing pop song lyrics or actual verse was beside the point; in my mind I held the lofty title of Teenage Bard.
I discovered the above Keats quote in college, at the height of my writing career–if by “height” one refers to the time during which a writer’s work receives the most recognition. But this is a story for another day.
We all remember Joe the Plumber from the 2008 presidential campaign. Joe, from what I gather, is a fine person who works hard and has his daily struggles. It’s safe to assume, though, that Joe refrains from writing poetry.
According to Keats, “A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence.” Joe the Plumber, on the other hand, represents the non-poet, or those “creatures of impulse [who] are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute.”
When we examine Keats’ distinction between Poet and non-poet, an interesting paradox emerges. In one sense, the Poet is “above” the non-poet, in terms of his place in the world. The Poet “uses” people like Joe the Plumber for material; he is “written about” by the writer.
In another sense, Joe exists “above” Keats, who is so busy writing about other people’s identities that he, as an artist, has no identity. The Poet, whether he considers himself “higher” or “lower” than others, thus leads a lonely existence in Keats’ world. He feels like an outsider to the Flow of Life, even while immersed in the flow of writing poetry that, to be effective, must remain grounded in the reality of the human condition.
The truth is that poets suffer along with everyone else; we simply express our pain in different ways than Joe the Plumber. Poets are not “more-than” or “less-than” that about which we write.
But where does this leave me? After college, I sank into a deep depression and duped myself into thinking that my mental/spiritual suffering contained artistic merit, like a gangsta rapper who earns “street cred” for taking a bullet to the leg.
Sometimes I felt like I was better than others and that the laws of life didn’t apply to me. My narcissism yielded to the dejected portion of my psyche, the part that found me telling myself that I was not worthy to be alive. My self-imposed separation from others made me feel worse–not because I identified with the role of poet, but because I misread what being a poet today means.
Simply put, Keats’ almost two-hundred-year-old assertion that a poet has no identity doesn’t fit me anymore. I’m a poet, yes, but I’m a human being first, and I exist in this world with you and Joe the Plumber and everyone else. Accepting this will help me realize my full potential as a healthy person who just happens to write poetry.