I have developed a simple philosophy of life: Don’t be a dick. If you can’t help others, at least don’t be mean to them. Think whatever you will about other people, but don’t belittle them to build yourself up. Some folks have a hard time following this principle. If more of us did, there would be fewer dicks in the world to bring us down.
For my 30th birthday last month, my mom put together a collage that now hangs on a wall in my bedroom. It’s full of family pictures, with shots of me through the years sprinkled in here and there.
A huge part of who I am is reflected in the people who know and love me. Some are gone, many remain, but all of them have affected how I see myself.
But something struck me tonight.
Of everyone captured in these photographs, I’m the one I know the least. Well, it’s beyond not knowing myself–I mean, everything I experience is filtered through me, through my being. The oddness that I feel in trying to “know” me lies in the fact that I am the only person in the world whom I can’t encounter in the street.
There’s no me outside of me.
The only concrete way to describe this is to think about my answering machine at home. If I call and leave a message for my mom, and then arrive home to play it before she returns, I find myself listening to my self.
And the closer I get to me, the further away I feel.
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.