Why I Became a Poet — A Speculation
An unpublished essay by Dean Blehert
I used to have thoughts, and I’d want to tell others. I remember when I was 4, excitedly telling my mother a discovery: If you said “one two one two,” it took the same amount of time as saying “one two three four,” and that was how you could tell that 2+2=4. I said it worked with other numbers, but you had to say “sen” instead of “seven.”
When I was 12, at camp, I lay back beneath tall pines, looked at them spiraling upwards and found myself huge, filling the sky, just me and big whorls of cloud. Then I lifted that body’s head and looked at the other kids scurrying around a campfire and thought “They wouldn’t understand this” and lay back to rejoin the sky, just as another kid, behind me, threw a small-plastic-shovel-full of sand in my face, and I cried. A counselor tried to comfort me, and said the other kid shouldn’t have done that, but I said that’s not why I was crying. I was crying because as soon as I’d had that thought “they wouldn’t understand this” – and before the sand hit -- I’d shrunk (no sexual pun intended, but it should have been), deserted by the sky. I decided I wanted other people to understand this.
I liked to take long walks, first, alone, later with a friend, thinking about things and looking at things. And always finding something I wanted to say to others. I remember when I was 15, I tried to figure out how self-awareness was good, while self-consciousness wasn’t so good. I was mulling this over as I walked, and it came to me: If I’m by myself and I fart, I’m aware of it—self-aware. If I’m with others and fart, I have this added layer of self-consciousness. What is this added layer? It’s trying to be the other people there and blame or mock myself, so as to show that I’m not the one who farted or am not to be identified now with the me then that farted. I thought this was brilliant. Maybe it was. Anyway, I wanted to tell the world.
So far, it sounds more like the genesis of a philosopher then a poet, but I did like words, puns, dictionaries. I remember walks where I found the sounds of words enchanting for their correspondences with the things I saw, the lightness of light, long chains of linked words, sounds, meanings.
But I wanted to write what I liked to read, and I liked to read novels. From about age 12 until age 17 or so, what I wanted to do was write novels or possibly humor. At about age 10, I sat down at a birthday-gift-typewriter and tried to write a Hardy Boys novel, got five pages in and gave up. Poems were easier for me—perhaps because I’m lazy (in some ways). I love stories, and occasionally tell them in my poems, but my impulse is to blurt, say what I have to say, not withhold punch lines. Even now (when I’ve managed to write a few short stories – in college – and some quite long coherent story poems), my impulse is to say everything immediately. If I find myself springing a fine line too soon, instead of holding it back for later, I simply continue past it and dare myself to out-do it. Sometimes I eat dessert before the meal. I think I’d need to be stronger on delayed gratification to write novels.
Or perhaps it’s because I am first a philosopher, whose best poems are usually highly compressed essays. In any case, I still read, mainly, novels, but write poetry. I do occasionally enjoy reading poems, and there are a few poets I love, but my first loves, my infatuations, were with novels, and my reading, still is mainly novels. By the time I decided poetry was what I wanted to write (age 16), I was reading and re-reading Tolstoy’s novels – and scorning anything lesser. That may be another reason I wrote poems – so as not to experience the frustration of not measuring up to Tolstoy (and later Kafka, Nabokov and other infatuations). My reading now is more varied and includes a lot more genre (mysteries, for example), but still I read just enough poetry to keep up with friends, while inhaling novels, histories, etc. In the great comic strip, Pogo (which was also a conversation), there’s a character who writes down lines from Shakespeare, then seeks out people to tell him what he’s written, because he can’t read. That’s not exactly my situation, but I love to write poetry, and I like my own poems, but I don’t care for most poetry. Or I admire it with little affection. (Again, there are exceptions.)
I became a writer because I had things I wanted to say. Also because expressing my “brilliant” ideas was one of the few things I could do and do fairly well and get some admiration for it (not much, but I was starved for it). I wasn’t athletic, had few other skills – a grasp of music, a pretty good voice, health, ability to learn a subject and usually ace tests in that subject, could handle math and science courses (but lousy in lab), but mainly I could talk and write. By the way, when I write, I talk. My poems emerge from and lapse back into conversation. In fact, my art form is closer to conversation than to what is expected of poetry.
Basically, I wrote poetry because I could, because I thought poetry was one area where I could be admired without being neat or having hair that combed down right, maybe even attract a girl (because poets can get away with being slobs, and I considered myself a slob – later found out I wasn’t so bad, but didn’t know it until I DID attract a girl, and could see myself through her eyes; it took me years longer before I could see and accept myself by myself). And because I really did see and understand things that exhilarated me, and wanted to share them.
Now I write poetry because it’s what I do. It’s my way of saying hello to lots of people over lots of time (present, future and even past). It’s my game. I look at all the other worthwhile things I might be doing...and I do some of them, turn them into fuel for the poetry. But what is more important than achieving a culture that’s fun and enriching? And what that entails is developing ourselves into people capable of playing richer, more interesting games (war is getting awfully boring). How do we achieve that? It helps to have better games in view – the mountain to travel toward. So I try to create interesting games, communications that are alive enough to reach across distances in space and time and stir others to create even more interesting games.
It has been said that what we are trying to do is create effects. Some people, feeling this and feeling ineffectual, become obsessed with creating huge effects: Blow up the planet, now THERE’S a big effect! (But no one left in a condition fit for admiring it.) It’s a big game followed by, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of years of no game at all, even assuming that we are immortal spiritual beings capable of creating new games: I imagine even spiritual beings are numbed and below awareness of one another when overwhelmed by some “total” effect. I think a SMALL effect (getting someone a bit less afraid, a bit more capable of fun and creativity) is actually a bigger effect, since if my creations communicate, they inspire creativity in others who, in turn, inspire creativity in yet others, until, over time, we have a huge creative energy manifesting in a vital, powerful culture.
So I try to put the mountain there by communicating well. The quality of communication (which is what characterizes art) makes the difference between a meager game (destructive, heavy, clumsy communication – bullets or political speeches, exclusive, a few players pushing around lots of half-crippled pieces) and an expansive game, involving many players and game makers, lightness, flexibility, quickness, richness, or, as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra would say, “yarely now.” Or (as I wax Shakespearean) “The readiness is all” (Hamlet) or “the ripeness is all” (Edward in King Lear). Well, I’ll end this now, before it gets overripe.
Copyright c. 2011 by Dean Blehert. All Rights Reserved