Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Poet's Personality

This week, a colleague at work said, "You're so outgoing and gregarious for a poet." I just smiled and said, "Thank you," even though I really wanted to know more details. Am I outgoing and gregarious for a regular person too? Am I outgoing and gregarious compared to a sullen teenager? It's like when a relative tells you, "I'm so impressed with your ability to carry on a conversation." Have you just been insulted or complimented?

I've been with my current school for almost seven years, and I occasionally get these kind of comments from people who have been there longer than I have. When I first started teaching creative writing classes, one person marvelled that I was so normal, for a writer. Another time, someone told me I was well-adjusted, for a poet. I wonder about creative writers who have been on faculty before I came--what kind of lives did these people lead, that makes my colleagues so incredulous of my ability to be personable?

As an undergraduate, I was a double major, both English and Sociology, so part of me always wants to grill people on what they mean by that word normal. Part of me always feels a bit insulted, like I've had a boring life. Part of me agrees that, yes, I've had a boring life, and contemplates taking up a dangerous habit.

And yet, I've known tempestuous writers (and non-writers) who manufacture drama, because life feels boring without it. And guess what? They don't get much done. They're too hung over or obsessed with an unobtainable love object or avoiding their muse in any number of damaging ways.

Throughout American literary history, we're burdened with the self-destructive writer (and any number of other types of artists). As far back as Edgar Allan Poe, we see people dying early because of their bad habits (those Colonial writers were probably too busy scratching out a living to drink themselves into an early grave). Some scholars might try to tell us that those alcoholic or drug abusing poets accomplished more than they ever would without the drugs and alcohol, but that's a bunch of hooey. Often their lives ended much earlier than they needed to, and I wonder about all the creative works lost to the drugs and alcohol, all the creative works lost when the writer died too young.

As writers, we need to take care of ourselves and attend to our communities, while at the same time making sure that we take time for our art. It's a delicate balancing act, to be sure. Being a tempestuous may make our lives seem more interesting, to the outsider at least, but it's unlikely to lead to art that's more interesting. I saw a quote recently (and I'll try to find it again, so I can give the famous, dead author credit): "Be well ordered in your life so that your art can be wild."


Anonymous said...

I was looking for any articles that might discuss the traits of poets, and how these individuals might share the same intellectual, personality or emotional traits. What a no nonsense approach. Everyone is different and there's no magic formula.

Anonymous said...

"Be well ordered in your life so that your art can be wild."

That hits the nail right on the head. The idea that being an artist means living destructively is ridiculous; you just burn out faster and are so much less productive.

The poets and other artists I know are not weird people either. Most have regular jobs, do regualar things and have normal personalities except that they notice so much more than non artist do. They all need maybe a bit more solitude than the non artist.

And incidently, in this this manner artists are like mystics. You can't be a deep spiritual person trying to get closer to God by being around people all the time. Even Mother Teresa insisted on about 4 hours alone with God.